Recent Missouri editorials: Justice Department investigation will have to expand beyond Ferguson

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 5

Justice Department investigation will have to expand beyond Ferguson:

A few numbers indicate a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department is long overdue. On Aug. 28, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Department of Justice will begin such an inquiry. This is an important and positive step forward, but we suspect when he gets into the numbers, and examines the reality of North St. Louis County, Ferguson will play but a small role in a larger investigation.

First, those numbers:

- As we noted Aug. 10, the day after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Blacks in Ferguson were 37 percent more likely to be pulled over in 2013 than whites, as a percentage of their respective populations. Those Black drivers who were pulled over were twice as likely to be searched for contraband, such as drugs, than White drivers, even though police found contraband, percentage-wise, more often in the cars of white drivers.

- In a city that is two-thirds Black, only three of its 53 police officers are Black.

- And this, from a recent report from Arch City Defenders: “Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”

None of these things, on their own, are proof positive of institutional racism or civil rights violations. But together, they help paint a picture that explains why tens of thousands of African-Americans in the St. Louis region have taken to the streets in anger, not just over the shooting of a Black teenager by a White police officer, but over years of being subject to different rules when dealing with the justice system partly, if not mostly, because of the color of their skin.

Mr. Holder’s challenge, and he seems to understand this, is that Ferguson is but one jagged piece of a complicated jigsaw puzzle of municipalities that exacerbates the problems of concentrated poverty faced by many Blacks in the St. Louis region.

In addition to investigating the Ferguson Police Department for a potential pattern of civil rights violations, Mr. Holder said the Justice Department and the St. Louis County Police Department are entering into a “collaborative reform effort” to examine police practices in the region, including “stops, searches and arrests” and the police response to the protests.

Further, Mr. Holder said, “We will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead.”

Washington Post reporter Radley Balko offered a pretty good road map on Aug. 26 of where Mr. Holder’s investigation might end. Mr. Balko told the story of Nicole Bolden, a 32-year-old Black woman and single mother, who was arrested in Florissant in March after being in a car accident that wasn’t her fault. The police officer found that there were warrants out for Ms. Bolden’s arrest for unpaid traffic tickets. She got cuffed and taken away in front of her children and over the next 36 hours went from jail to jail in Florissant and Hazelwood and St. Charles County to deal with old traffic tickets for speeding, not wearing a seat belt or driving on a suspended license.

Nearly every one of the patchwork of municipalities in St. Louis County depends on traffic enforcement to produce too much of the revenue it needs to run a city. The police departments, nearly all of them, pull over Blacks at a higher rate than Whites. Some of them operate insidious speed- and red-light cameras to increase revenue. They charge fees and fines beyond the ability of most poor people to pay. Those in poverty pay the price by going to jail. Most of them are Black.

Sadly, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

On Oct. 1, Flordell Hills becomes the 58th municipality in St. Louis County to have its own police department, the Post-Dispatch’s Jennifer Mann reported Thursday. Twenty-five of those police departments are in cities of less than 5,000 people.

For the most part, those smaller police departments lack the expertise of larger forces such as St. Louis County or the city of St. Louis. They trade officers back and forth, sometimes because the officers seek higher pay, other times, because they need a change of scenery. For example, Mr. Wilson, before he was in Ferguson, plied his trade in the city of Jennings, which disbanded its police force several years ago amid charges of brutality and discrimination.

This is what Mr. Holder is going to find. The facts will reach like tentacles into the larger problems of division in the St. Louis region. He will find that our division, by geography, by arbitrary political boundary, and by race, runs deep.

Such division is part of the massive challenge St. Louis had been trying to deal with even before Ferguson erupted. In our “A Greater St. Louis” series, we have examined the negative effects of political division in a region with 90 municipalities in a county that doesn’t even include the city of St. Louis, which operates as its own city and county. We have called for the region to break down its various barriers and unite, to improve its schools, its business, and help erase its racial divide.

This is a huge, seemingly intractable problem. Ferguson both highlights the need for unity, and, perhaps, because of its attention on the racial component of it, makes it that much more difficult.

In the past five years, Mr. Holder has opened 20 investigations into local police departments of the type he is now ordering in Ferguson, with 300 individual police officers nationwide being prosecuted for some sort of misconduct as a result of those investigations. Those investigations and other reform movements similar to what is being announced in St. Louis County have led to 14 joint agreements between the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies intended to protect civil rights by improving training and changing procedures that led to high incidents of racial profiling or police brutality.

The Justice Department shining a light on potential civil rights abuses in Ferguson and St. Louis County is a great start. It tells the protesters that the government, the community, has heard their cries for help.

The challenge in St. Louis, though, is that even if the feds and the local police reach an agreement outlining police reform measures in Ferguson, or St. Louis County, or both, such agreements will only tip-toe around the larger unsolved problem created by more than 150 years of division.

___

Columbia Daily Tribune, Sept. 6

Michael Brown’s record:

As the grand jury in Ferguson looks into the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, reporters pushed for information about Brown’s previous police record as a juvenile. A juvenile court lawyer said at the hearing that Brown faced no juvenile charges at the time of his death and never was convicted of a serious felony.

Those who would justify the police shooting often say “Brown was no angel.” a statement of opinion that has nothing to do with culpability. Even if Brown was suspected of crimes much worse than his record shows, that past record would have nothing to do with whether the White officer was justified shooting the Black youth.

State law makes juvenile court records secret under the theory young people deserve to learn how to grow up properly without the burden of earlier mistakes. Even in adult cases, judges routinely keep past brushes with the law away from jurors. The defendant’s past record should not affect the jury’s decision in an unrelated subsequent case.

So it is in the Michael Brown case. Under legal precedent, juvenile records can be made public when the subject is charged with certain violent crimes. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a West Coast blogger pushed for the records.

Michael Brown’s past police record is of no legal relevance today, but in the court of public opinion it has become important. A lot of speculation has swirled on the Internet … alleging reasons for denying Brown is the “gentle giant” characterized by his supporters. As usual on the Internet, much or most of this information is false. But regardless, it has nothing to do with culpability in the shooting incident.

The next step is likely to trigger another round of trouble on the streets. The grand jury almost certainly will not indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, a decision likely to send protesters back onto the streets.

This reaction will be made stronger by the presence of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch in the secret grand jury proceedings. McCulloch has a good reputation with his peers and should be trusted to conduct the grand jury proceedings as fairly as anyone, but he is suspected by the potentially volatile crowd. Unless evidence surfaces beyond anything we are seeing so far, the chances of an indictment are nil. The stage is set for another round of trouble.

Maybe it would not make a difference if a special prosecutor were on the scene. The argument for keeping McCulloch is strong. He is duly ordained and competent to do this job. One can argue persuasively he should not be frog-marched out of the courthouse by a mob.

As said here before, the officer had the last best chance to avoid the killing. Too bad his bullets found the target. But that doesn’t mean he had no reason to react violently under the circumstances. We remote observers have heard a lot from both sides. The grand jury won’t try to judge what might have been. It will give the officer slack for dealing with a threatening situation.

The whole thing is too damn bad, and, alas, it’s not over yet.

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