To Serve But Not to Protect

Courtesy of Boston Review

Courtesy of Boston Review

In an 86-page, impartial report that canvassed more than 300 residences, the Justice Department cleared Officer Darren Wilson of rights violations in the Ferguson shooting.

What if, as some witness alleged, Officer Wilson had shot Mr. Brown when he had his hands up in surrender? What about the nationwide protests—the people’s chant of “hands up, don’t shoot”—that implied a guilty verdict was all but certain? An independent forensic analysis and the testimony of 40 witnesses, however, revealed a much more ambiguous story. Instead, there was “no evidence upon which prosecutors [could] rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety.” The department found no witness who could offer an account that was both credible and implied guilt. Some witnesses did not fully contradict the officer, while others lacked credibility because they contradicted forensic evidence.

Despite this, we should neither dismiss Ferguson because of the verdict, nor forget the chant, “hands up don’t shoot.” This is because a second report released by the Justice Department revealed a greater systemic problem: the persistent violation of the Fourth and First amendments by Ferguson Police Department (FPD).

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. City of Indianapolis v. Edmond defines an unreasonable search or seizure as one made “in the absence of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.” In Ferguson, officers frequently arrested people without probable cause—for conduct that plainly does not meet the elements of the cited offense. The example the report cites occurred in 2013, when an officer approached five African American teenagers listening to music in a car. The officer claimed to have smelled marijuana, and arrested the teenagers for “gathering in a group for the purposes of committing illegal activity.” The teenagers were then detained and charged, even though the officer failed to find any marijuana when he searched the car. On a separate occasion the FPD arrested an African American man for sitting in a parking lot, even though the officers were on their way to arrest someone else. This was not a case of confused suspects: the police knew that this was not the man they had come to arrest. Nonetheless, without citing any reason in their arrest report, they handcuffed the man and placed him in their patrol car.

The FPD also continuously violates the First Amendment protection of free speech. While there certainly are well-known limits to our right to free speech, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the “First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers” (City of Houston, Tex. v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987)). This means that police officers cannot constitutionally arrest someone for disrespecting an officer, swearing at an officer, or talking back to an officer. In Ferguson, however, officers often reacted to verbal contention by arresting the individual, even though police officers are expected to exercise greater restraint than the average citizen (Buffkins v. City of Omaha). This speaks to a larger trend where Ferguson’s police officers interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, and indications of mental illness as reason to use force. Such punitive policing lends merit to the chants, “hands up, don’t shoot” and help explain the current tensions between the FPD and the community they are supposed to serve and to protect.

It might seem, then, that Ferguson doesn’t represent a race issue, but a constitutional issue. Unfortunately, in Ferguson, these constitutional violations are often manifestations of racial biases. All the victims of the examples cited above are African American and all are part of a larger trend that suggests only black people in Ferguson commit crimes. Though Ferguson is only two-thirds black, African Americans account for 93% of arrests, 88% use-of-force cases, and 85% of vehicle stops. In defense of Ferguson, its former mayor blamed the Justice Department for relying on incomplete data, saying “the racial disparity could be explained not by bias, but by the large number of black people from surrounding towns who visit Ferguson to shop.” Yet those claims fail to explain why a black motorist who is pulled over in Ferguson is twice as likely to be searched as a white motorist—even though, as conceded by the FPD, searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs. And those claims also fail to explain the series of racist remarks made by city officials that the Justice Department found. In one email, a city official wrote that Obama couldn’t stay in the White House long because: “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another city official included a cartoon that depicted African Americans as monkeys; another official joked about an abortion by an African American woman as being a means of crime control.

Racism in the FPD is systemic. The Justice Department investigation revealed that no efforts were made to discipline the officers or city officials who made the racist remarks. The report showed that none of the recipients of the emails asked the sender to refrain from making those remarks. Instead, the emails were passed along to others. But it is not merely racist emails; when the African American man arrested for sitting in the parking lot, for example, filed a complaint against the police department for racial discrimination, he was dismissed by the officer, the officer’s sergeant, and the municipal courts. In Ferguson, personal biases have led to an institutionalized racism that makes a mockery of the US Constitution as well as basic human decency.

Ultimately, the Justice Department reports show that Ferguson requires us to look past the actions of individuals like Darren Wilson to the lasting authoritative structures that institutionalize racism. But this message is not getting across. Almost half of whites surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

It is imperative that we ask ourselves: how can race be getting more attention than it deserves when the black-white income gap is roughly 40% greater today than it was in 1967? Or, when black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts? Ferguson, though it exposed that outrageous inequalities still exist, also points out straightforward solutions. One simple step is to ensure that police departments and their policies are not in violation of the Constitution, in the hope that more just police practices will ameliorate some of the racial tensions.