A new Justice Department report on Ferguson’s police and courts could not be more clear: Change is needed.
The 102-page report details widespread and systemic discrimination against blacks at the hands of officials — painting probably the clearest picture yet of what the rule of law looks and feels like in the Missouri city. It includes 26 recommendations.
The report is scathing in its critique, and clear about what needs to happen next, but it doesn’t address the question: Who, if anyone, is responsible for what took place?
Are individual officers to blame? Is the police chief?
What about city officials who repeatedly pushed police to increase revenue through ticketing, resulting in disproportionate targeting of African-Americans?
Writing for CNN, criminal defense attorney Mark O’Mara argues in favor of gutting the entire police department, and starting from scratch.
So far, one person has been fired; two more are on administrative leave.
Are more heads likely to roll?
“When the attorney general said that the Department of Justice has made certain recommendations, those aren’t necessarily just recommendations. The Ferguson police department and municipal courts will have to reform. This is a must-do situation. We’re talking about wholesale reform,” said CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin.
“And I would be very surprised that any of the leadership remains.”
One employee fired; two on leave
Mayor James Knowles said the two employees on leave are awaiting the results of an internal investigation.
“Department of Justice officials informed the city of Ferguson that a review of city emails uncovered explicit racial bias by three individuals who are employed by the city of Ferguson police department. Let me be clear: This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson police department or in any department in the city of Ferguson,” he told reporters Wednesday. “The three individuals were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. One has since been terminated.”
A source said the two employees “will not survive the investigation.”
CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin criticized the mayor’s response, seemingly suggesting that more needed to be done in the wake of the Justice Department report.
“You read this report, and, one officer loses his job? You know, you translate the bureaucratic gobbledygook of the mayor, that’s all that happened there,” he said.
Surprisingly to some, controversial Police Chief Tom Jackson remains at the helm. So does Knowles.
‘Nothing is off the table’
Although the report is limited to correcting action going forward, people affected by past abuses do have the option of filing civil lawsuits against specific individuals.
Such cases are not easy to bring, according to Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“In a court of law, the findings of this report wouldn’t even be admissible,” he said. “Basically, you’d have to prove each allegation.”
Joy gave an example of person who paid a $100 fine that was unjustly levied. Finding lawyers who would take an individual case like that would be tough, he said, because there is no guarantee they could recover on behalf of their client, and the amount of damages could very widely.
Practically, that person may be out of luck.
But if the Justice Department gets its way, illegal or improper behavior on the part of police and courts in Ferguson could soon be a thing of the past.
“It is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “The United States Department of Justice reserves all of its rights and abilities to force compliance and to implement basic change. Nothing is off the table.”