Lessons of Ferguson: For the Good of Law Enforcement
I promised to examine the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, just as I did the DOJ’s report on the Brown shooting. The report on Ferguson got the lion’s share of headlines in the past couple of weeks, with most headlines shouting that the PD was engaging in racist behavior, illegal stops, and violations of civil rights. After reading the report in its entirety, which, again, I urge everyone to do, it’s painfully clear that Ferguson has some very troubling systemic problems. I’m not going to tap dance around saying “not every officer”, because common sense tells any intelligent person that’s a given, but the pervasiveness of the policies geared toward revenue generation and statistics alone, paint a picture of a police department in need of a major overhaul. City and Department officials were found to openly request more tickets written from the Chief to increase revenue. One DOJ example:
City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. In an email from March 2010, the Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.
Worse, officials were found to author and forward racist emails on city computers. When people are unafraid of being caught sending racist emails, I’d say the culture is evident. DOJ cites numerous examples throughout the report.
We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.
Statistical analysis, combined with interviews of city and police personnel, examinations of public records, to include emails, provide numerous examples of improper practices of using the PD to generate revenues, and in some more damning examples, outright racist remarks in city correspondence. I’m a retired cop, so I’m concerned with the overall city leadership culture and performance standards (a sanitized way of saying quota) that make otherwise good cops do the wrong thing. It’s a slippery slope when leaders aren’t leading in a moral way. Here’s the DOJ take on it:
The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.
In other words, police officers in Ferguson understand that their job security depends upon those tickets. Sadly, they didn’t have a police chief strong enough or honest enough to stand up. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t alone in that leadership vacuum. The problem is that when you stop looking at tickets or other enforcement as the public safety instrument, and only consider the next “stat”, the person you encounter becomes less an individual and simply a number. I get that problem. I railed against stat-driven policing for years. Here’s the thing. Stats should never be an “outcome”. The only measure of police success should be the absence of crime in a community and the ability to work with the community to achieve that goal. Period.
The problem gets worse as it progresses. The City of Ferguson, like many other communities, sets a fine for minor offenses, with usually steeper, often criminal penalties for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court. Of course, when the cop on patrol stops the person again, they have a job to do. The person has a criminal offense or warrant. What’s the cop supposed to do? They have to arrest. It’s their job. So, then the citizen is booked into jail, and the cycle grows. Again, I get it. But, what is the police officer supposed to do at that point? It’s not the cop that sets the fines or criminalizes behavior. Our representatives pass laws that cops enforce. It’s just the cops who get the brunt of the blame for enforcing society’s rules. True story.
So, otherwise decent cops, just enforce the rules of society. The bad cops use the sketchy culture of a city like Ferguson, in ways that none of us want to acknowledge. But, just like I called on the Black community to face some tough thoughts last time, I challenge law enforcement not to look away. It’s a fact. A subpar or flat out bad cop uses stats as a cover for their bad behavior, and they can get away with it without strong leadership. If all his chain of command cares about is being at the top of the arrest/ticket stats, then nobody cares how the numbers come. I’ve seen it.
That, my friends in blue, is where we have to change. Now. Because the animosity that bad policies and policing sow, by even a few, get blown exponentially out of proportion, and the result is that it makes every cop on the beat less safe. Police officers must have the willing cooperation of the citizens to be effective. Sir Robert Peal said that at the dawn of our profession. With the proliferation of guns and violence in criminals today, that idea has never been more important. Our profession must have the courage to address systemic issues that lead to undesirable behaviors in our ranks. Our badge is a symbol of public trust. We have the responsibility to adhere to the ethics it represents and stand for justice.