Lessons from the Ferguson report

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday March 11 2015 in Opinion
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The report by the United States Justice Department on the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department leaves one shaking one’s head, on the verge of, if not all out, tears. How, one may ask, can an organization in which so much power resides, and which can have the protection of the laws and government, be so cruel?


In fact, notwithstanding our history and all that we know about racism (and not just in America), it is difficult not to ask, naively, how can a police department be so cruel?


“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs”. That is one of the findings of the report.


Another is: “Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African-Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities.”


The shooting death of Michael Brown became the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back. The frustrations and anger that had been building for years finally came to the surface. That forced an investigation that has laid bare for the world to see that the concerns that prompted the mass demonstrations were in fact legitimate.


And, if you remember, at first those demonstrations were met with what can best be described as military might – armored vehicles and police in riot gear.


That leads to a third fact that should be mentioned: “Police and other City officials, as well as some Ferguson residents, have insisted to us that the public outcry is attributable to ‘outside agitators’ who do not reflect the opinions of ‘real Ferguson residents’. That view is at odds with the facts we have gathered during our investigation. Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.”


The report cites statistics which bear out the over-policing of the African-American community, not to mention the unconstitutionality of some of the police’s actions with respect to stops and searches. “Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African-Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population.”


Although the Justice Department’s report made some recommendations to change the current culture of the FPD, I would find it difficult to think that anything short of a complete makeover would do. That would involve terminating most of the current officers, including the Chief. The FPD had, up until recently, 54 sworn officers (about three resigned in the wake of the report) four of whom were African-American. I haven’t even mentioned the emails some of these officers have shared.


Some of the stories that the report cites about the fines and how they were administered could be the kind of penalties that you read about in a crime novel in which organized criminals extorted exorbitant interests for loan payments. And these were administered by the courts. Revenue-raising on the backs of the most vulnerable.


Much the same can be said about the stops and searches and subsequent arrests – a completely different scenario from how Whites were treated.


An interesting aside: It is curious that this report was released just before the 50th anniversary of the Selma incident in which the police viciously trampled all over the peaceful demonstrators in support of voting rights at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


The depth of racism that existed to allow this behaviour to occur is, honestly, hard to imagine. The total abuse of power. You have to wonder how long this abuse would have continued had events not unfolded as they did. You also have to wonder how many other police departments in the United States conduct business in the same manner as Ferguson.


A very central lesson that the Toronto Police Service can take from this report is an in depth understanding as to why there is so much opposition to “carding” and its precursors. Obviously, the abusive fines and similar money-making activities would be unlikely to happen here. However, the unwarranted stops, the recording of details about stopped individuals for no apparent reason – these are the kinds of things that compound distrust between the community and the police.


We cannot, and should not forget, that we have had our own investigations of the police here. In fact, we have had several. The outcomes seemed to have been: How can we do the same things, such as unwarranted stops, but do it differently and give it some justification.


Remember, former Police Chief Julian Fantino was insistent that racial profiling was not part of the Toronto Police Service’s operating procedure. In a sense, he may have been right. It was not policy but it was practiced. And the Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racism in the Justice System found that racism existed in the treatment of young Black men who became involved in the system.


Today, we have carding. A change in terminology but it is essentially the same practice.


Email: patrick.hunter11@gmail.com / Twitter: @pghntr

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