Police in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in racist behavior, as did workers at the city’s court and jail, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday in a damning report sparked by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen. But in a separate finding, Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, was deemed not criminally responsible for the incident, and as such, no civil rights charges will be brought against him.
The investigation into the police department began in August after the fatal shooting, which triggered days of demonstrations in the community and national outrage, especially after an area grand jury declined to indict Wilson.
Federal investigators found that there was no evidence to disprove Wilson’s testimony that he acted out of concern for his life. Nor was there reliable evidence that Brown had his hands up in surrender when Wilson fired the fatal shots.
In a press conference announcing the findings, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department's decision to not press charges against Wilson may leave some "to wonder how the department’s findings can differ so sharply from some of the initial, widely reported accounts of what transpired."
But he said a possible reason for that discrepancy may be found in the separate findings of underlying racist bias at law enforcement institutions, which sowed mistrust.
Holder explained that "unlawful practices and constitutional violations have not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy and made local residents less safe but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them."
Based on interviews with police leaders and residents and a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests, a picture of widespread racism emerged.
Investigators found that black individuals were 68 percent less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by municipal court judges and that from April to September of last year, 95 percent of people kept at the city jail for more than two days were black. African-Americans make up 67 percent of Ferguson's population.
The report outlines a sweeping pattern of discrimination not only among officers but also at the town’s jail and court.
“As detailed in our report, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” said Holder in a statement. “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause and using unreasonable force against them."
Findings included evidence that police disproportionately use excessive force against black individuals and that black drivers are stopped and searched far more often than white motorists, even though they are less likely to be carrying contraband.
Wednesday’s report included a racially tinged 2008 message in a municipal email account stating that Barack Obama would not be president for very long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years." The message's sender was not identified in the report.
In a news conference Wednesday evening, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles responded to the report by saying that the city of Ferguson had disciplined three FPD employees who the DOJ found had exchanged emails with “explicit racial bias.” After finding out about the emails Tuesday, the city fired one employee and placed another two on administrative leave “pending an investigation,” Knowles said.
“Let me be clear,” he said. “This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or in any department in the city of Ferguson,” he added, calling their actions “in no way representative” of their colleagues.
Knowles also said that the city of Ferguson had made strides to engage the community and reduce the onerous criminal and civil penalties the municipal court imposed on citizens, most of them black, for minor traffic violations. He did not take questions from reporters.
Lawmakers and civil rights lawyers called for sweeping reforms in Ferguson in light of the report’s findings.
"I don't think any African-American who is familiar with Ferguson will be surprised at the report," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. He said that Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson should step down and that the report should be viewed by cities across the country as a wake-up call. "This is valuable information to people who prefer to believe that any claim of discrimination is simply playing the race card."
The decision to clear Wilson came as "disappointing news" to members of Brown’s family, who have long demanded that Wilson face criminal charges. But Brown's parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. said that if the Department of Justice report leads to "true change … not only in Ferguson but around the country," then their son's death "will not have been in vain."
Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said city officials would hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss their response to the report.
The Justice Department can sue the city to force change or try to negotiate reforms.
With wire services