The DOJ's Report on Ferguson

March 8, 2015

Students learn about and discuss  the US Department of Justice's report on the Ferguson Police Department and consider reforms that would address the injustices described in the report.   

Note to teacher:  Please also see our previous lessons on Ferguson and related subjects.



Ask students if they have heard about the U.S. Justice Department’s recent report on the Ferguson Police Department and the police killing of Michael Brown.

Elicit or explain that on March 4, 2015, the United States Department of Justice released its report on the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department. The Justice Department chose not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black man. The report did, however, find a pattern of discriminatory "unconstitutional policing" in Ferguson.

The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, and later, the failure of a grand jury to charge the officer, led to hundreds of protests, marches and demonstrations, new organizations and social media mobilizations nationwide. "Black Lives Matter" has become a familiar rallying cry for those protesting what they see as police bias.

National attention has been focused on police treatment of Black men as a result of:

  • The grand jury’s decision not to charge Office Darren Wilson of shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson
  • Another grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York
  • The police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a police officer in Cleveland

Though many of those who protested the shooting of Michael Brown are disappointed with the report's verdict on the shooting, the DOJ report was devastating in its condemnation of the racism in the Ferguson Police Department.  The Ferguson police department is about 94 percent white, while two-thirds of Ferguson residents are Black. Ferguson’s mayor and other city officials are also overwhelmingly white.


Student Reading 1: 
‘Unconstitutional Policing’ in Ferguson

The U.S. Department of Justice’s report found many abusive practices of the Ferguson Police.  Among the report’s findings:

  • "This investigation has revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and federal statutory law."  (The First Amendment protects the right to free speech and assembly, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, and the Fourteenth Amendment protects equal treatment under the law.)
  • "Partly as a consequence of City and Ferguson Police Department priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue [through fines]."
  • Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence."

One practice that DOJ investigators found especially troubling was the excessive arrests for failing to obey a police officer--or "failing to comply."

The police do have the authority to stop someone and issue orders when they have reason to believe that the person has been engaged in illegal activity. The police in Ferguson frequently arrest people for not following their orders even if there is absolutely no reason to believe the person has done anything wrong.

The report includes the following example:  

... in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code.

Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him.

The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., "Mike" instead of "Michael") and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.

The report also details examples of "the routinely disrespectful treatment many African Americans say they have come to expect from Ferguson police."  For example:

An African-American man recounted to us an experience he had while sitting at a bus stop near Canfield Drive. According to the man, an FPD patrol car abruptly pulled up in front of him. The officer inside, a patrol lieutenant, rolled down his window and addressed the man:

Lieutenant: Get over here.

Bus Patron: Me?

Lieutenant: Get the f*** over here. Yeah, you.

Bus Patron: Why? What did I do?

The lieutenant ran the man’s name for warrants. Finding none, he returned the ID and said, "get the hell out of my face."

For discussion

  • How important is it that the Department of Justice could find no grounds on which to charge Officer Darren Wilson?
  • How important is it that the Justice Department found systemic racism in the Ferguson police Department?
  • Why do you think the DOJ conducted this unusual investigation? Do you think the months of protests in Ferguson and around the country and world had anything to do with it?
  • Why do you think a city with a majority Black population has a police force that is 94% white?
  • How unique do you think the situation in Ferguson is?



Student Reading 2: 
‘Maximixing Revenue’ in Ferguson

According to the DOJ report,  "City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity."

Almost a quarter of Ferguson's city budget is paid through fines. The DOJ investigators found that the Court Clerk, Judge, Prosecutor, City Finance Director and other officials designed rules and fees to maximize income to the City. In addition, they applied intense pressure on the Police Department to be "more productive"--that is, to issue more tickets.

The report tells the story of one person caught up in the Ferguson fines system: In 2007, a woman parked her car illegally and was fined $151. From 2007 to 2010, she was having financial difficulties and periods of homelessness, and missed payments and court dates. Failing to appear in court and pay the fines led to more fees, two arrests and time in jail. The court even turned down partial payments of $25 and $50. By 2014, she had paid $550 dollars and still owed $541--all for an initial fine of $151.

The Justice Department report notes that  "the City has been aware for years of concerns about the impact its focus on revenue has had on lawful police action and the fair administration of justice in Ferguson. It has disregarded those concerns—even concerns raised from within the City government—to avoid disturbing the court’s ability to optimize revenue generation." 

While most citizens faced harsh repercussions for non-payment, the Justice Department found that friends and relatives of city officials had an easy time getting their fines removed entirely.

The report notes that "Even as Ferguson city officials maintain the harmful stereotype that black individuals lack personal responsibility - and continue to cite this lack of personal responsibility as the cause of the disparate impact of Ferguson’s practices - white city officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends. " the Justice Department investigators said.

The report singles out one municipal judge for inflicting harsh fines and fees on the city’s residents, while fixing tickets for himself and his allies.  In 2012, a Ferguson City Councilmember wrote to other City officials opposing the reappointment of  this judge, arguing that he "does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict." According to the report:

The Councilmember then addressed the concern that "switching judges would/could lead to loss of revenue," arguing that even if such a switch did "lead to a slight loss, I think it’s more important that cases are being handled properly and fairly." The City Manager acknowledged mixed reviews of the Judge’s work but urged that the Judge be reappointed, noting that "[i]t goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our fines and forfeitures."

For discussion  

  • How do you think Ferguson’s reliance on fines affects community-police relations?
  • Is there a problem with cities relying on fines to fund a large portion of their budgets? If so, what is the problem?
  • Should a city be obligated to take a person's financial condition into account when applying penalties for non-payment of fines?
  • How do you think city officials were able to get away with fixing fines?



Recommendations for change

Ask students to break into groups of 4-5.  Give students 10 minutes to discuss the following questions in their groups:

  • What are the 3 most important reforms you think are needed to address injustices described in the DOJ report?
  • For each reform measure, explain:
    • Why is this reform important?
    • What effect do you think it would have on the situation in Ferguson?
    • What steps would be needed to win this reform?

Reconvene the class and ask each group to share their responses.  See if the class can come up with a consensus about their top three recommendations.

For homework 

Ask students to read the DOJ recommendations at the end of the DOJ report (beginning on page 90):

Be prepared to discuss these questions:

  • What do you think of the DOJ recommendations?
  • Were the class’s recommendations included in the DOJ document?
  • If they weren’t included, should they be?  Why?
  • Do you think the DOJ recommendations for Ferguson should be applied in other places?

In the next class: Discuss the DOJ recommendations and students’ responses to the questions.

Ask students:

  •  What recommendations do you think are most important? 
  • Are there actions we can take to support the implementation of any of the most important recommendations?

If there is interest, support students in taking action on a reform they believe is important.