The Justice Department on March 4 issued a report determining that the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely violated the constitutional rights of its African American residents.
The results of the Civil Rights Division’s six-month investigation, sparked by the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer last August, are disturbing. Among the findings: black motorists are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be searched, but were less likely to be found in possession of drugs or other contraband. Black residents, who make up 65 percent of Ferguson’s population, accounted for 93 percent of arrests. Emails sent from local government accounts revealed racist jokes, including one about President Obama.
In short, law enforcement failed to be a part of, and accountable to, the community that it serves. In Ferguson, as in many other places across the country with significant minority populations, residents perceive the police as an occupying force.
So what’s the cure? How can the police in Ferguson fix what’s broken, and bring the department into compliance with civil rights laws?
The steps required to repair the damage are complex, and require buy-in from a range of stakeholders. Among the reforms needed:
- Collect the data. The report’s findings on traffic stops suggest that race was driving decision making for cops on the Ferguson police force. Blackness was being used as a criminal factor that turned out (no surprise) not to actually lead them to more bad guys. Gathering data on stops and the use of force—and using it to support accountability for officer conduct—helps surface bad practices, the first step toward improving them.
- Make systems more accountable. Departments need early-warning systems, supervisory reviews, and a clear way to reward officers who solve community problems rather than those who have high arrest rates. Line supervisors are key to helping to keep the rank and file accountable internally, while citizen review boards provide valuable external oversight.
- Diversify the ranks. In many inner-ring suburbs, there is a significant disconnect between the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of the police department and the community it serves. This can fuel an “us vs. them” mentality among law enforcement officers. Increasing diversity up the chain of command helps support an improved internal and external culture. There was a disturbing amount of racist language in the internal emails revealed in the Justice Department report. That speaks to a toxic internal culture on race.
- Adopt community policing. Too many departments are estranged from the neighborhoods they are charged with protecting. Building better relations with the community and developing trust helps police operate a fair and just law enforcement system. With that connection, neighbors become partners with police officers in helping to keep their community safe, and avoid the mentality of an occupying army keeping anxious watch over an enemy force.
- Improve training. Departments can help train officers to guard against implicit bias, to reduce incidences of the use of force, to defuse situations rather than escalate them. There are proven ways of dealing with the mentally ill, for instance, as well as for dealing with the enormous amount of stress officers carry with them. Taking advantage of such training—and, through the involvement of supervisors, reinforcing good behavior—can significantly improve police practice.
In recent years, lawsuits by the Department of Justice and private plaintiffs have brought to light long-standing and systemic problems akin to those in Ferguson in law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Albuquerque, Seattle, and Puerto Rico police departments. Change is possible, as reforms in the Los Angeles police department attest.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting, the Open Society Foundations have joined with other groups to help improve law enforcement accountability and build a national database on police practices. The challenge now is to provide incentives for more departments across the country to engage in a process of data collection, real accountability, and community engagement that leads to justice and safety for all of our neighborhoods.