CNN reported last night that the U.S. Justice Department is ready to sue the City of Ferguson, Missouri because of racially discriminatory practices by the Ferguson Police Department.
On August 9, 2014 a Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed. The investigation into that shooting revealed that there was a disturbing pattern of the Ferguson Police Department treating minorities in a different manner than they treated white people in the city.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he expects the Justice Department to announce before he leaves office the results of separate federal investigations into the Ferguson police officer’s Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Holder announced in September that he will resign after six years at the helm of the Justice Department, but he has agreed to remain in his post until the confirmation of his successor.
In November, President Obama nominated US Attorney Loretta Lynch to replace Holder as Attorney General. The Senate held confirmation hearings on Lynch’s nomination in January, but still has not held a vote on her confirmation.
In the meantime, the Justice Department has continued to investigate the practices of the Ferguson Police Department.
On Tuesday Holder said, “I think everybody will see when we announce our results that the process that we have engaged in is, as I said back at the time when I went to Ferguson, independent, thorough and based on all the facts, and I am confident that people will be satisfied with the results that will be announced.”
Last night CNN reported that if Ferguson officials fail to revise their police tactics, the Justice Department would sue to force changes within the department.
The issues in the lawsuit would include allegations that police officers in Ferguson, and the nearby suburban city of Jennings, unfairly targeted minorities with minor traffic violations and then jailed them when they couldn’t pay the fines.
CNN also reported that the Justice Department could request court supervision of changes at the Ferguson Police Department to improve how officers deal with minority residents.
Most people in America are lucky; they have good honest police departments. For example, the Brockport Police Department is honest and competent; so is the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, and the same can be said of the New York State Police.
Some people will complain, no matter what. But if you get pulled over by a member of the Brockport Police Department, a Monroe County Sheriff, or a New York State trooper, then the odds are virtually 100% that you have committed a traffic violation.
Brockport Police officers, a Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputies and New York State troopers don’t care what race you are, and they don’t care about your politics. They care about public safety.
If they pull you over for running a stop sign or cruising through a red light, they are trying to prevent an accident. They know that the worst T-bone accidents happen when a red accelerator meets a green anticipator at full speed in the middle of an intersection.
.Unfortunately, that isn’t true everywhere. The police departments in Ferguson, and the nearby suburban city of Jennings, Missouri, both seem to target minorities for minor traffic violations. And worse, both cities send people to jail if they fail to pay the fines on those minor traffic violations.
If it sounds like indentured servitude to you, the Justice Department seems to agree.
The New York Times cites the case of Herbert Nelson Jr., who was 18 the first time the Ferguson Police pulled him over. That ticket was for speeding, but over the years Nelson has been ticketed repeatedly for driving violations such as failing to use a turn signal, or not wearing a seatbelt, and driving with a revoked license.
Nelson, who is now 26, has found himself repeatedly jailed in Ferguson, and other nearby municipalities, for nothing more than minor traffic violations.
“I’ve been trying to imagine a way out of this for years,” said Nelson, “Something has to happen where you separate minor cases from serious cases. You can’t keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons.”
Allison Nelson, Herbert Nelson’s 23-year-old sister, told The New York Times, “Anytime I go outside, I fear that I’ll be stopped by the police.” She said she had received her first traffic ticket at 18 and had since been held for days in lockups that she described as filthy and smelling of mold, sewage and sweat. Allison Nelson said that once she was even arrested outside her family’s house while she was still in her nightgown.
The tension between minorities and the Ferguson Police Department has been exacerbated by Ferguson’s increased financial dependence on traffic fines and by a pattern of the Ferguson police pulling over black motorists at a greater rate than they pull over white motorists.
Arrest warrants are often issued by municipal courts when someone fails to appear for a court appearance. In 2013, Ferguson, which has a population of 21,000, had the highest number of arrest warrants in the state relative to its size: 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people.
No wonder the Justice Department is investigating.