Remarks as prepared for delivery
I would like to take the next few moments to address the two investigations that the Justice Department has been conducting in Ferguson, Missouri, these last several months. The matter that we are here to discuss is significant not only because of the conclusions the Department of Justice is announcing today, but also because of the broader conversations and the initiatives that those conversations have inspired across the country on the local and national level. Those initiatives have included extensive and vital efforts to examine the causes of misunderstanding and mistrust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve; to support and strengthen our public safety institutions as a whole; and to rebuild confidence wherever it has eroded.
Nearly seven months have passed since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That tragic incident provoked widespread demonstrations and stirred strong emotions from those in the Ferguson area and around our nation. It also prompted a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, with the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Missouri and the FBI seeking to determine whether this shooting violated federal civil rights law.
The promise I made when I went to Ferguson and at the time that we launched our investigation was not that we would arrive at a particular outcome, but rather that we would pursue the facts, wherever they led. Our investigation has been both fair and rigorous from the start. It has proceeded independently of the local investigation that concluded in November. And it has been thorough: as part of a wide-ranging examination of the evidence, federal investigators interviewed and re-interviewed eyewitnesses and other individuals claiming to have relevant information and independently canvassed more than 300 residences to locate and interview additional witnesses.
This morning, the Justice Department announced the conclusion of our investigation and released a comprehensive, 87-page report documenting our findings and conclusions that the facts do not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson in this case. Michael Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson.
This conclusion represents the sound, considered, and independent judgment of the expert career prosecutors within the Department of Justice. I have been personally briefed on multiple occasions about these findings. I concur with the investigative team’s judgment and the determination about our inability to meet the required federal standard.
This outcome is supported by the facts we have found – but I also know these findings may not be consistent with some people’s expectations. To all those who have closely followed this case, and who have engaged in the important national dialogue it has inspired, I urge you to read this report in full.
I recognize that the findings in our report may leave some to wonder how the department’s findings can differ so sharply from some of the initial, widely reported accounts of what transpired. I want to emphasize that the strength and integrity of America’s justice system has always rested on its ability to deliver impartial results in precisely these types of difficult circumstances – adhering strictly to the facts and the law, regardless of assumptions. Yet it remains not only valid – but essential – to question how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly, and be accepted so readily.
A possible explanation for this discrepancy was uncovered during the course of our second federal investigation, conducted by the Civil Rights Division to determine whether Ferguson Police officials have engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
As detailed in our searing report – also released by the Justice Department today – this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.
A community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue. A community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents. A community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias – both implicit and explicit. And a community where all of these conditions, unlawful practices, and constitutional violations have not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy, and made local residents less safe – but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them.
Of course, violence is never justified. But seen in this context – amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices – it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg. In a sense, members of the community may not have been responding only to a single isolated confrontation, but also to a pervasive, corrosive, and deeply unfortunate lack of trust – attributable to numerous constitutional violations by their law enforcement officials including First Amendment abuses, unreasonable searches and seizures, and excessive and dangerous use of force; exacerbated by severely disproportionate use of these tactics against African Americans; and driven by overriding pressure from the city to use law enforcement not as a public service, but as a tool for raising revenue.
According to our investigation, this emphasis on revenue generation through policing has fostered unconstitutional practices – or practices that contribute to constitutional violations – at nearly every level of Ferguson’s law enforcement system. Ferguson police officers issued nearly 50 percent more citations in the last year than they did in 2010 – an increase that has not been driven, or even accompanied, by a rise in crime.
As a result of this excessive reliance on ticketing, today, the city generates a significant amount of revenue from the enforcement of code provisions. Along with taxes and other revenue streams, in 2010, the city collected over $1.3 million in fines and fees collected by the court. For fiscal year 2015, Ferguson’s city budget anticipates fine revenues to exceed $3 million – more than double the total from just five years prior. Our review of the evidence, and our conversations with police officers, have shown that significant pressure is brought to bear on law enforcement personnel to deliver on these revenue increases. Once the system is primed for maximizing revenue – starting with fines and fine enforcement – the city relies on the police force to serve, essentially, as a collection agency for the municipal court rather than a law enforcement entity focused primarily on maintaining and promoting public safety. And a wide variety of tactics, including disciplinary measures, are used to ensure certain levels of ticketing by individual officers, regardless of public safety needs.
As a result, it has become commonplace in Ferguson for officers to charge multiple violations for the same conduct. Three or four charges for a single stop is considered fairly routine. Some officers even compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop – a total that, in at least one instance, rose as high as 14. And we’ve observed that even minor code violations can sometimes result in multiple arrests, jail time and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over.
For example, in 2007, one woman received two parking tickets that – together – totaled $152. To date, she has paid $550 in fines and fees to the city of Ferguson. She’s been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets, and spent six days in jail. Yet she still – inexplicably – owes Ferguson $541. And her story is only one of dozens of similar accounts that our investigation uncovered.
Over time, it’s clear that this culture of enforcement actions being disconnected from the public safety needs of the community – and often to the detriment of community residents – has given rise to a disturbing and unconstitutional pattern or practice. Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them. According to the Police Department’s own records, its officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights. They interfere with the right to record police activities. And they make enforcement decisions based on the way individuals express themselves.
Many of these constitutional violations have become routine. For instance, even though it’s illegal for police officers to detain a person – even briefly – without reasonable suspicion, it’s become common practice for officers in Ferguson to stop pedestrians and request identification for no reason at all. And even in cases where police encounters start off as constitutionally defensible, we found that they frequently and rapidly escalate – and end up blatantly and unnecessarily crossing the line.
During the summer of 2012, one Ferguson police officer detained a 32-year-old African American man who had just finished playing basketball at a park. The officer approached while the man was sitting in his car and resting. The car’s windows appeared to be more heavily tinted than Ferguson’s code allowed, so the officer did have legitimate grounds to question him. But, with no apparent justification, the officer proceeded to accuse the man of being a pedophile. He prohibited the man from using his cell phone and ordered him out of his car for a pat-down search, even though he had no reason to suspect that the man was armed. And when the man objected – citing his constitutional rights – the police officer drew his service weapon, pointed it at the man’s head, and arrested him on eight different counts. The arrest caused the man to lose his job.
Unfortunately, this event appears to have been anything but an isolated incident. Our investigation showed that members of Ferguson’s police force frequently escalate, rather than defuse, tensions with the residents they encounter. And such actions are sometimes accompanied by First Amendment violations – including arresting people for talking back to officers, recording their public activities, or engaging in other conduct that is constitutionally protected.
This behavior not only exacerbates tensions in its own right; it has the effect of stifling community confidence that’s absolutely vital for effective policing. And this, in turn, deepens the widespread distrust provoked by the department’s other unconstitutional exercises of police power – none of which is more harmful than its pattern of excessive force.
Among the incidents of excessive force discovered by our comprehensive review, some resulted from stops or arrests that had no legal basis to begin with. Others were punitive or retaliatory in nature. The police department’s routine use of Tasers was found to be not merely unconstitutional, but abusive and dangerous. Records showed a disturbing history of using unnecessary force against people with mental illness. And our findings indicated that the overwhelming majority of force – almost 90 percent – is directed against African Americans.
This deeply alarming statistic points to one of the most pernicious aspects of the conduct our investigation uncovered: that these policing practices disproportionately harm African American residents. In fact, our review of the evidence found no alternative explanation for the disproportionate impact on African American residents other than implicit and explicit racial bias.
Between October 2012 and October 2014, despite making up only 67 percent of the population, African Americans accounted for a little over 85 percent of all traffic stops by the Ferguson Police Department. African Americans were twice as likely as white residents to be searched during a routine traffic stop, even though they were 26 percent less likely to carry contraband. Between October 2012 and July 2014, 35 black individuals – and zero white individuals – received five or more citations at the same time. During the same period, African Americans accounted for fully 85 percent of the total charges brought by the Ferguson Police Department. African Americans made up over 90 percent of those charged with a highly-discretionary offense described as “Manner of Walking Along Roadway.” And the use of dogs by Ferguson police appears to have been exclusively reserved for African Americans; in every case in which Ferguson police records recorded the race of a person bit by a police dog, that person was African American.
The evidence of racial bias comes not only from statistics, but also from remarks made by police, city and court officials. A thorough examination of the records – including a large volume of work emails – shows a number of public servants expressing racist comments or gender discrimination; demonstrating grotesque views and images of African Americans in which they were seen as the “other,” called “transient” by public officials, and characterized as lacking personal responsibility.
I want to emphasize that all of these examples, statistics and conclusions are drawn directly from the exhaustive Findings Report that the Department of Justice has released. Clearly, these findings – and others included in the report – demonstrate that, although some community perceptions of Michael Brown’s tragic death may not have been accurate, the widespread conditions that these perceptions were based upon, and the climate that gave rise to them, were all too real.
This is a reality that our investigators repeatedly encountered in their interviews of police and city officials, their conversations with local residents, and their review of thousands of pages of records and documents. This evidence pointed to an unfortunate and unsustainable situation that has not only severely damaged relationships between law enforcement and members of the community, but made professional policing vastly more difficult – and unnecessarily placed officers at increased risk. And today – now that our investigation has reached its conclusion – it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action. Let me be clear: the United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change.
The report from the Justice Department presents two sets of immediate recommendations – for the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court. These recommendations include the implementation of a robust system of true community policing; increased tracking, review and analysis of Ferguson Police Department stop, search, ticketing and arrest practices; increased civilian involvement in police decision-making; and the development of mechanisms to effectively respond to allegations of officer misconduct. They also involve changes to the municipal court system including modifications to bond amounts and detention procedures; an end to the use of arrest warrants as a means of collecting owed fines and fees; and compliance with due process requirements. Ensuring meaningful, sustainable and verifiable reform will require that these and other measures be part of a court-enforceable remedial process that includes involvement from community stakeholders as well as independent oversight in order to remedy the conduct we have identified, to address the underlying culture we have uncovered, and to restore and rebuild the trust that has been so badly eroded.
As the brother of a retired police officer, I know that the overwhelming majority of America’s brave men and women in law enforcement do their jobs honorably, with integrity, and often at great personal risk. I have immense regard for the vital role that they play in all of America’s communities – and the sacrifices that they and their families are too often called to make on behalf of their country. It is in great part for their sake – and for their safety – that we must seek to rebuild trust and foster mutual understanding in Ferguson and in all communities where suspicion has been allowed to fester. Negative practices by individual law enforcement officers and individual departments present a significant danger not only to their communities, but also to committed and hard-working public safety officials around the country who perform incredibly challenging jobs with unwavering professionalism and uncommon valor. Clearly, we owe it to these brave men and women to ensure that all law enforcement officials have the tools, training and support they need to do their jobs with maximum safety and effectiveness.
Over the last few months, these goals have driven President Obama and me to announce a series of Administration proposals that will enable us to help heal mistrust wherever it is found – from a National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, to a historic new Task Force on 21st Century Policing – which will provide strong, federal support to law enforcement at every level, on a scale not seen since the Johnson Administration. These aims have also led me to travel throughout the country – to Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland and San Francisco – to convene a series of roundtable discussions dedicated to building trust and engagement between law enforcement, civil rights, youth and community leaders from coast to coast.
As these discussions have unfolded, I have repeatedly seen that – although the concerns we are focused on today may be particularly acute in Ferguson – they are not confined to any one city, state, or geographic region. They implicate questions about fairness and trust that are national in scope. And they point not to insurmountable divides between people of different perspectives, but to the shared values – and the common desire for peace, for security, and for public safety – that binds together police as well as protestors.
Although dialogue, by itself, will not be sufficient to address these issues – because concrete action is needed – initiating a broad, frank, and inclusive conversation is a necessary and productive first step. In all of the Civil Rights Division’s activities in Ferguson – as in every pattern-or-practice investigation the Division has launched over the last six years – our aim is to help facilitate and inform this conversation; to make certain it leads to concrete action; and to ensure that law enforcement officers in every part of the United States live up to the same high standards of professionalism. It is clear from our work throughout the country—particularly the work of our Civil Rights Division—that the prospect of police accountability and criminal justice reform is an achievable goal; one that we can reach with law enforcement and community members at the table as full partners.
Last August, when I visited Ferguson to meet with concerned citizens and community leaders, I made a solemn commitment: that the United States Department of Justice would continue to stand with the people there long after the national headlines had faded. This week, with the conclusion of our investigations into these matters, I again commit to the people of Ferguson that we will continue to stand with you and to work with you to ensure that the necessary reforms are implemented. And even as we issue our findings in today’s report, our work will go on.
It will go on as we engage with the city of Ferguson – and surrounding municipalities – to reform their law enforcement practices and establish a public safety effort that protects and serves all members of the community. It will go on as we broaden this work, and extend the assistance of the Justice Department to other communities around the country. And it will go on as we join together with all Americans to ensure that public safety is not a burden undertaken by the brave few, but a positive collaboration between everyone in this nation. The report we have issued and the steps we have taken are only the beginning of a necessarily resource intensive and inclusive process to promote reconciliation, to reduce and eliminate bias, and to bridge gaps and build understanding. And in the days ahead, the Department of Justice will stay true to my promise, vigilant in its execution, and determined in the pursuit of justice—in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community across the United States.