National & World News

Relations in Ferguson ‘highly toxic,’ Holder says

ST. LOUIS – (NNPA) – Between its racial bias and its focus on “revenue rather than public safety needs,” the Ferguson Police Department routinely engages in “highly toxic” practices that violate the U.S. Constitution and federal law, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday, citing findings from a Justice Department report.

Although the report found the Ferguson Police Department guilty of using unjustified and excessive use of force, however, it also cleared officer Darren Wilson of any federal civil rights charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. last Aug. 9.

“There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety,” the Justice Department report said.

The report on Wilson’s case – released simultaneously with the findings on the police department – stated that although several people saw Brown with his hands up in “an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson.”

DOJ investigators said other witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson “as he moved toward Wilson.”

However, the DOJ criticized this same reaction in its report on the Ferguson police, stating, “Supervisors seem to believe that any level of resistance justifies any level of force. They routinely rely on boilerplate language, such as the statement that the subject took ‘a fighting stance,’ to justify force.”

Completing a months-long review of the Brown case, the 100-page report concluded that the Ferguson Police Department and the city’s municipal court engaged in a “pattern and practice” of systemic discrimination against African-Americans, targeting them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.

It also cited “unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African-Americans,” and pointed to a number of violations of constitutional rights. Nearly 70 percent of the St. Louis suburb is black, officials say, while only three members of its 53 officers are black.

Connecting the two investigations on Wednesday, Holder said a “highly toxic environment” existed between Ferguson police officers and the city’s African-American residents before Wilson shot and killed Brown last year.

“It’s not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said.

He pointed to the use of excessive force overwhelmingly against African-American residents, noting that only African-Americans were bit by police dogs, and said “no alternative explanation” except racial bias exists to explain it.

Holder also said Ferguson’s police department violated residents’ First Amendment right to record the activities of officers, regularly conducted illegal searches, unlawfully detained citizens, and competed with each other to “see who can issue the largest number of citations in a single stop.”

He said the city’s municipal courts and local government “relies on the police force to serve essentially as a collection agency.”

Speaking Wednesday, the parents of Michael Brown Jr. – Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. – said they were “saddened” by the decision not to charge Wilson in their son’s death:

“Today we received disappointing news from the Department of Justice that the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions. While we are saddened by this decision, we are encouraged that the DOJ will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color.”

“It is our hope that through this action, true change will come not only in Ferguson, but around the country. If that change happens, our son’s death will not have been in vain.”