How can Ferguson law enforcement break a pattern of bias?

A new report by the Department of Justice says that police in Ferguson, Missouri, have shown a pattern of racial bias and civil rights abuses. The findings come after a months-long investigation following the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown. Gwen Ifill gets reaction from Justin Hansford of Saint Louis University School of Law and Paul Butler of Georgetown University Law Center.

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    Now to a much-awaited report from the Justice Department.

    After a months-long investigation following the fatal shooting of African- American teenager Michael Brown, the Department of Justice has found what it calls a pattern of racial bias and civil rights abuses by Ferguson, Missouri, police.

    The NewsHour has confirmed Attorney General Eric Holder could announce the findings as soon as Wednesday, among them, African-Americans, who are roughly two-thirds of the population in Ferguson, made up 92 percent of peace disturbance charges. And once charged with an offense, they were 68 percent less likely than others to have charges dismissed.

    Here to discuss the disparities, we're joined by Justin Hansford, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, and Paul Butler, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

    Paul Butler, is this what we mean when we talk about racial profiling?

  • PAUL BUTLER, Georgetown University Law Center:

    Indeed, it is.

    What the department has found is that the Ferguson police treat African-Americans differently at every level. They're arrested more. They get more tickets. They even are bitten by dogs more. One of the most revealing statistics is that, of the 15 times Ferguson police dogs have bitten people, they have all been African-Americans.

    Why are they doing this? We know now arrests of African-Americans are basically creating this slush fund. So there are all these court fees, penalties, fines. Twenty percent of the revenue of Ferguson comes from these selective arrests of African-Americans, more than any other revenue, other than sales tax.


    Justin Hansford, you have been following this very closely in Saint Louis. Is this something — these findings, do they surprise you? And is this something that you think the federal government is in a position to intervene to prevent?

    JUSTIN HANSFORD, Saint Louis University School of Law: No, receiving these findings is sort of like receiving a finding telling us that water is wet.

    So we live in this community. We have experienced all of these situations firsthand. I myself have been targeted for arrest and have been someone who has been a victim of racial profiling in Ferguson. So we're not surprised.

    I think the federal government's decision to take an initiative — take the initiative to intervene in this case is really symbolic. When I went to the United Nations with Mike Brown's parents, Ferguson became, in the eyes of the world, shorthand for racial intolerance in the United States all around the world.

    And this is a symbolic measure. Look, there are 18,000 police departments around the country, and this is just one of them. And so a piecemeal approach — piecemeal approach is not going to do a great deal to change reality for the majority of African-Americans in this country or even in this region, where the Ferguson Police Department only serves about 20,000 residents.

    So I think we're looking at this as not a solution, but as a symbolic gesture that does help to establish the norm that racial profiling and predatory policing that targets communities in order to profit is something that is unethical and shouldn't be tolerated.


    Professor Butler, how — make the connection for us. Just because a department, a police department, is guilty of racial bias, say, or even of Telling bad and racist jokes and sending e-mails, as this report finds, around the department, what's the connection between that kind of behavior and what he calls predatory policing? Why is there a connection between these two things?


    So, this is part of a pattern and practice, is what the Justice Department found.

    This kind of lawsuit came out of the Rodney King case, when there was a concern that police officers were not being held accountable for using deadly force or excessive force against African-Americans. And, in fact, in a number of cities that have been subject to these kinds of cases, there have been real changes that have been made.

    So, typically, what happens is, Ferguson has two choices now. They can enter into some kind of consent, that is, some kind of negotiated settlement, or they can risk being sued by the Department of Justice.


    But I'm talking about something more basic. How do you draw the line between the behavior and the actions? The report says this is the behavior. How do you then say, this results, as a result, in abusive policing?


    Yes, so you look at the culture of the police.

    You know, a lot of people don't think that police officers actually treat African-Americans differently. So this is conclusive evidence that they do. So then the question is, how do you change that culture? What happens with these consent decrees is, there are policies that are put in effect about things like when to use deadly force, about how to deal with mentally ill people, about a civilian oversight of these police departments.

    So, the change really has to come from the culture.


    Professor Hansford, how does one go about enforcing this sort of change? It's one thing for the Justice Department release a report and say, voila, we have now found evidence of this kind of treatment, but then how do they go about stopping it?


    Well, in the case of Ferguson, I am sure there are ongoing negotiations with the police chief to decide how they're going to move forward.

    But I think the larger question is, as a society, are we going to be able to rethink what policing means for us going forward in the 21st century? Are we going to take a piecemeal approach? Are we going to pass something like a broad omnibus bill and racial profiling act, Black Lives Matter Act, something of that nature, to make our police rethink how they address these problems?

    So, we overcriminalize small actions and communities, under the theory of broken windows policing. That's been a failure.



    But let me interrupt you for a moment, because these laws already exist in Ferguson. They already exist in Missouri. How — the question isn't whether the law should be passed. The question is, how do you enforce them? And that's the part I'm — I guess I'm having trouble with.



    So, I think that the way you enforce laws and the way you enforce a change in behavior is to tie it to the money. And that's something we haven't seen as of yet. For example, in Missouri, we have a racial profiling act that does trace the data and the racially disproportionate stops of people in the community, but we don't have any enforcement mechanism.

    So police departments like Ferguson can say, yes, we see the data, and we're going to continue doing it because it's our prerogative, unless you start to tie it to their money, unless you have state grants withheld or federal grants withheld. Then money talks. People will start to change their behavior.


    Let me ask Professor Butler the same question.




    Well, you hold police are accountable. You make sure that there are sanctions for when they violate the law, as the department has found that they do in Ferguson. You also create disincentives, so that the police don't use arrests of African-Americans as slush funds to fund the city. So there's a bill pending in Missouri that would say no more than 20 percent of a city's income can come from court cases and from penalties.

    We also need early warning systems. Most cops want to do the right thing. It's just a few bad apples who give everyone a bad name. So, one of the things civilian oversights do is develop practices to identify the bad apples early on. That makes the difference.


    Professor Paul Butler of the Georgetown University Law Center and Professor Justin Hansford of the Saint Louis University School of Law, thank you both.


    Great to be here.


    Thank you.

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