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You, Too, Can Prevent Police Brutality

The DOJ's Ferguson probe shows why we need to get proactive

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One month after taking office as president of the United States, George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress that racial profiling “is wrong and we will end it in America.” To that end, his Department of Justice issued a flawed rule in 2003 that prohibited federal law enforcement from profiling by race or ethnicity (but not religion, nor sexual or gender identity).

That’s pretty much all he saw fit to do. It didn’t solve much.

Barack Obama's Justice Department undoubtedly has made race a more visible priority. Eric Holder, who will leave his post as attorney general after his replacement is confirmed, has in the past six years opened more than 20 investigations into local police departments ranging from Albuquerque to Cleveland. But let’s not assume that Ferguson, Missouri and its 94 percent white police department would have attracted the gaze of Holder and federal investigators had officer Darren Wilson not shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death last August, making the city a flashpoint of racial angst in a year full of them. Even the first black U.S. president and the first black attorney general needed a push.

Wednesday gave us fresh evidence that Holder, Obama, and the rest of the government must go further. The country needs systematic solutions that pre-empt racial abuse in law enforcement before it occurs. Stopping police brutalization of black citizens in Ferguson and elsewhere requires that remedies can’t come after the fact.

A DOJ probe began weeks after Brown’s killing. We learned Tuesday from various reports that its report would formally declare that the city police and courts—with excessive force, unconstitutional traffic stops, and unjustified petty arrests—have disproportionately targeted black Ferguson residents. Racist jokes about black people in seven city administration emails also surfaced, including one about President Obama from 2008 that said he wouldn’t be in office long, because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

The emailed barbs are ironic because Ferguson officers were, according to the DOJ report, “frequently mak[ing] enforcement decisions based upon what subjects say, or how they say it.” These unconstitutional examples of “contempt of cop” actions, the report added, are “propelled by officers’ belief that arrest is an appropriate response to disrespect.”

Holder added in a DOJ statement: “This investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.” That’s a fascinating way to put it—“found.” It was plain to Ferguson residents like Angel Goree, who told the New York Times, “I’ve known it all my life about living out here.”

Wednesday’s other DOJ announcement wasn’t a surprise, either. The DOJ “does not support” federal civil rights charges against Wilson for Brown’s death, citing the lack of proof that the officer used unreasonable force and that he did so willfully—“that is,” the statement read, “he shot Brown knowing it was wrong and against the law to do so.” (You can read all of Holder’s remarks here.)

We heard similar wording recently from the DOJ when it found “insufficient evidence” to charge self-styled neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman for the 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. The key to both cases is also the fundamental problem with racial conversations in this country. How, after all, do you judge intent? And why does intent matter above all else?

If discovering intent remains the standard of proof for federal civil rights violations, and if Wilson and Zimmerman didn’t make the cut, I tremble to think what it would take to merit a charge. Does it take choking out an unarmed man who is struggling to utter, “I can’t breathe”? We’ll likely find out in a few months, since the DOJ launched an investigation into the July killing of Eric Garner at the literal hands of a New York Police Department officer.

Why, for instance, after more than eight months of highly publicized killings and shootings of black men, women, and children by police, has there not been federal legislation mandating the reporting of statistics such as those the DOJ compiled in Ferguson? Between 2012 and 2014, the DOJ found, 93 percent of people arrested, 85 percent of those stopped in their vehicles, 88 percent of people who faced force from police, and 92 percent of people who had warrants issued for their arrest, were black. The town is two-thirds black, but come on. Why does it require a federal investigation to find this information?

“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country,” FBI director James Comey said in his recent, much-ballyhooed speech at Georgetown. Deadspin, a snarky sports website, undertook this effort weeks after Brown was shot. Why not our government? Reno News & Review editor D. Brian Burghart, who attempted to collect such data for two years, wrote last August that the lack of such a national database is “intentional,” arguing that “bad journalism colludes with police to hide this information.”

We live in a world where the National Security Agency can reach its tentacles into our personal data to Orwellian levels, but the United States doesn't know how many times a cop shot someone last year. (Perhaps the NSA already has this information. Paging Edward Snowden.)

Given that the DOJ conclusions about Ferguson’s risible police department arise largely from data, the country could use a constantly updated and transparent account of arrests, police shootings, and officer-involved deaths that is searchable by race and gender. Accountability starts with counting. And it should be available not just to law enforcement and elected officials. If mugshots are Google-able in 2015, meaningful statistics ought to be as well.

I’d add that the frustration in these Ferguson reports, for me, lies not in the lame jokes about Barack and Michelle Obama that officials shared on city email. While certainly reprehensible and fireable offenses, that nonsense only distracts us, and can make the real crimes harder to spot. The federal government still doesn’t have the tools to address the systematic abuse and bias embedded in local law enforcement. That angers me more than whether some Ferguson city employee thinks the president’s color makes him inherently shiftless. We’re still operating in a system that asks citizens screaming for someone to listen to wait until police abuse goes viral. Most often, someone has to be die first.

Holder, who has talked of easing standards for federal civil rights charges before he leaves his post, will need Congress to get on board. I wish him luck with that. In the meantime, he and the DOJ can work towards prevention, not just punishment. Our federal government has, for too long, been comfortable living in ignorance of police misdeeds until voices get loud enough, and judging civil rights abuses by whether or not the offender meant to be racist.