More than seven years ago, a black woman parked her car illegally in Ferguson, Missouri. She received two tickets and a $151 fine. The woman, sometimes homeless, struggled to pay it off, and over the next several years she was slapped with seven “Failure to Appear” citations for missing payments and court dates. Each of those citations added to the debt she owed the city and resulted in an arrest warrant. By 2014, she’d been arrested twice, spent nearly a week in jail, and had paid the city $550. As of December, she still owed $541.
“Inexplicable,” is how Attorney General Eric Holder summed up her story at a press conference on Wednesday, at which he unveiled the Department of Justice’s long-anticipated report on the Ferguson police department and municipal court. The report affirms what residents have long said: that officers routinely profile citizens based on their race and violate their constitutional rights. Critically, the report addresses the roots of the police force’s discriminatory practices. Not simply the fault of racist cops, the DoJ asserts, they stem from the way the city preys on residents financially, relying on the fines that accompany even minor offenses to balance its budget.
The report traces the pattern of racial bias from traffic stops to arrests to the courtroom and, finally, to a cycle of incarceration and indebtedness. Black residents make up about 67 percent of the Ferguson population. According to the DoJ, they experienced 85 percent of all traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 88 percent of incidents in which an officer used force, and 93 percent of all arrests. They received almost all of the citations for petty crimes like jaywalking. Black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched as whites, yet significantly less likely to actually have drugs or other contraband. Of the people who spent two or more days in in the city jail, 95 percent were black.
Overt, grotesque racism among city officials underlies these statistics. The report includes a handful of e-mails between police and municipal court officials that contain derogatory language, such as a November 2008 message stating that President Obama would not be in office long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another, from 2011, contained a photo of a group of women dancing topless and “apparently in Africa” with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”
But a subtler, systemic pressure also encourages over-policing in Ferguson: the way that the city relies on the fines levied on violators to fund itself. “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,” states the report. This year the city expects to raise $3.09 million of projected $13.26 in revenue from fines and fees, which it levies wherever possible. An unmowed lawn, for instance, costs Ferguson residents between $77 and $102, though in some other cities it’s a $5 offense.