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Ferguson Police Official Fired for Racist Emails Revealed by Scathing DOJ Report

Ferguson’s mayor responded Wednesday to a Department of Justice report that detailed how the city has routinely violated the constitutional rights of its black residents.

by Keegan Hamilton
Mar 5 2015, 2:40am

Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said Wednesday that a police official has been fired and two others placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of several racist emails revealed by a scathing Department of Justice (DOJ) report that detailed how the city has routinely violated the constitutional rights of its black residents.

Knowles briefly addressed the media hours after the DOJ's 102-page report was published, but he took no questions. The emails described in the report referenced stereotypes of racial minorities as criminals, including one that "joked about an abortion by an African American woman being a means of crime control."

Several of the emails cited by the DOJ mocked President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by using racially offensive language and imagery. One message, sent in April 2011, compared Obama to a chimpanzee. Another, sent in October 2011, included a photo apparently taken in Africa that showed a group of bare-chested women dancing with the caption, "Michelle Obama's High School Reunion."

"This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or any other department," Knowles said, announcing disciplinary action for the three people who sent the emails. "We must do better not only as a city, but also as a state and country."

Related: 'Hands up, don't shoot: Ferguson protests in photos.

Knowles mostly focused on efforts at reform already undertaken by the city in the wake of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Darren Wilson on August 9. He noted that city employees have received diversity training, and that the city has established a civilian oversight board that meets weekly to review the policies and procedures of the police department.

The DOJ, however, is asking Ferguson to take 26 additional steps to address what US Attorney General Eric Holder called a "highly toxic environment" of racism and misconduct in the city's police department and municipal courts. The DOJ's recommendations include training officers to de-escalate confrontations and banning the use of ticketing and arrest quotas. The city must comply or risk facing a costly lawsuit.

Tom Jackson, Ferguson's chief of police, was conspicuously absent during Knowles' address and was not available for comment Wednesday. The DOJ's report described a pattern of routinely abhorrent behavior by Jackson's department, with officers seemingly more concerned about generating revenue for the city than impartially enforcing the law.

"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," the DOJ report said.

The DOJ said Ferguson's municipal court operates "not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue." The report also said the municipal court used the city's police force "as a collection agency."

The DOJ noted that, in its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, Ferguson budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million in revenue. The court exceeded that target, collecting $2.46 million.

Related: St. Louis suburbs Ferguson and Jennings sued over 'debtors prisons' criminalizing poverty. 

Most of that money came from Ferguson's largely disadvantaged African American residents, with city officials reportedly sometimes helping their white friends and colleagues get tickets dismissed.

According to figures cited by the DOJ, from 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by Ferguson police officers involved African Americans, despite the fact that the city is only 67 percent black.

"These disparities are also present in FPD's use of force," the DOJ wrote. "Nearly 90 percent of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American."

In his remarks Wednesday, Holder said that, in hindsight, it was not surprising that Brown's death was met with outrage and protests. "It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg."

As was widely expected, the report cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing during the deadly encounter with Brown, saying DOJ investigators found no evidence to disprove the officer's claim that he feared for his safety when he shot the unarmed teenager. The DOJ also said it could not confirm that Brown was surrendering with his hands up — a version of events Wilson steadfastly denied — when the fatal shots were fired.

But even if Wilson did nothing wrong, the DOJ made a compelling argument that Ferguson's cops often made baseless arrests, violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens, and used their Tasers in a manner described as "unconstitutional, abusive, and unsafe."

The DOJ also noted that, despite months of protests, media scrutiny, and a class-action lawsuit, Ferguson police were still "interfering with individuals' rights to protest and record police activities" as recently as last month. The report described an incident on February 9, the six-month anniversary of Brown's death, when several protesters were standing peacefully outside police headquarters.

Related: Illinois cops received training on how not to 'be the next Ferguson.' 

"Video shows that as one man recorded the police arresting others, he was arrested for interfering with police action," the report states. "Officers pushed him to the ground, began handcuffing him, and announced, 'Stop resisting or you're going to get tased.'

"It appears from the video, however, that the man was neither interfering nor resisting," the report continues. "A protester in a wheelchair who was live streaming the protest was also arrested. Another officer moved several people with cameras away from the scene of the arrests, warning them against interfering and urging them to back up or else be arrested for Failure to Obey."

Six people were ultimately arrested, and the DOJ said the police's "escalation of this incident was unnecessary and in response to derogatory comments written in chalk on the FPD parking lot asphalt and on a police vehicle."

Despite the overwhelming evidence, however, Knowles maintained during his address to the media Wednesday that the city as a whole did not have a problem with racism, saying the racist emails sent by the three individuals were "in no way representative" of the culture in his St. Louis suburb.

But the DOJ noted that, until Wednesday, no city employee was ever disciplined or even reprimanded for sending and sharing the emails.

"Nor did we see a single instance in which a police or court recipient of such an email asked that the sender refrain from sending such emails, or any indication that these emails were reported as inappropriate," the DOJ wrote. "Instead, the emails were usually forwarded along to others."

DOJ Ferguson Report

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton