What the Ferguson Report Really Exposed

March 13, 2015 Topic: Society

What the Ferguson Report Really Exposed

Media coverage has obscured what is perhaps the most important finding regarding the shooting death of Michael Brown.

In fact, as Investors Business Daily notes, the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis, Missouri issued a report  in 2006 concluding that as public opposition to increases in local tax rates has increased, one “very common indirect revenue source for local governments “ trying to compensate has been  issuing traffic tickets.  There is no doubt that the citizens of Ferguson should pressure local government to stop this practice. But as long as the violations are real violations of the law, not false claims made up by local police, there is no violation of federal law and certainly no “pattern or practice” that violates §14141.  

The other reason to read the SLS’s report with a great deal of skepticism is because of the militant ideologies and backgrounds of the attorneys who work there and were responsible for drafting this report.  The SLS is filled with “progressive” lawyers well known in the Civil Rights Division as having an incredible hostility to the police. As I pointed out in this article, almost all of the lawyers hired in this section come from, or were members of, left-wing advocacy groups: “while there were numerous lawyers hired who worked at public defenders or for advocacy organizations for criminals and prisoners, not a single lawyer was hired with experience as a prosecutor or in law enforcement in a Section which has as one its main jobs investigating the practices of local police. Do local jurisdictions really think they will get a fair, nonpartisan, objective hearing from the lawyers in this Section?”

That remains just as true today as when I wrote it back in 2011.  The bottom line is that there is no question that there are some troubling incidents covered in the report.  In certain cases, there is a real question whether FPD police officers had reasonable suspicions or met the elements of probable cause to act, or may have overreacted in a threatening situation.  But that type of Monday morning quarterbacking happens in every police department in the country.  It is always easier to second-guess an officer’s actions in the calm light of day than it is to actually face the incredibly hostile circumstances confronted by the officer, who is forced to make a split-second decision where his/her own life, not to mention the lives of others, are on the line.   

Can the FPD use some better training on what the requirements are under the law before they can stop, detain, or arrest a potential lawbreaker?  The answer is probably “yes.”  But that, too, is true of most police departments in America.  It is not evidence that the FPD discriminated and violated federal law or the constitutional rights of local residents.     

Should Ferguson move away from trying to raise revenue through municipal code violations and traffic stops?  The answer to that is also “yes.”  But again, that is a choice that should be made by local officials and local residents.  It does not constitute a federal case or a violation of the applicable statute, 42 U.S.C. § 14141, that the Justice Department is charged with enforcing. Attorney General Eric Holder does not have the authority under that statute to “dismantle” the police department, as he has said the federal government may demand.   

Reuters reported that two police officers who are not even members of the FPD were shot and seriously wounded during a protest in Ferguson just “hours after the city’s police chief resigned in the wake of a scathing U.S. Justice Department report finding his force was rife with racial bias.”  It would be hard for anyone to claim that protest and the resulting violence did not flow directly from the dubious accusations made by the Justice Department. From the first moment they inserted themselves in the furor that erupted in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, Eric Holder and his lawyers in the Civil Rights Division have seemingly done their best to inflame passions rather than calm the waters of a small town in Missouri.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.  Along with John Fund, he is the coauthor of “Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department” (HarperCollins/Broadside 2014).

Image: Wikimedia/Jamelle Bouie