The Department of Justice released a comprehensive report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department last week, highlighting a history of civil rights abuses. Ferguson came to the spotlight after the shooting of unarmed, African-American teen Michael Brown, by police officer Darren Wilson. While the DOJ found no cause for filing civil rights charges against Wilson, the report described unprofessional and racist behavior and tactics throughout the Ferguson criminal justice system. While it is important to bring such violations to light, the DOJ report should be used as a case study, with an emphasis on the systemic nature of this problem. This is not isolated to one city, one county or one state. This is a nation-wide cancer, which warrants an exhaustive investigation and reform effort.
The Ferguson report contained a bevy of civil violations on the part of the police and court system in Ferguson. For instance, an officer arrested an African-American man who was cooling off in his car after a basketball game, accusing him of “being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park” charging him with eight counts, including “making a false declaration” for saying his name was Mike and not Michael.
As Reuters reported, apart from making unjust arrests, the police department also used attack dogs and tasers on unarmed, nonthreatening victims. Such details put weight behind an appealing and widely circulated statistic: 93 percent of Ferguson arrests between 2012 and 2014 were of African-Americans—who make up only 67 percent of the population. On top of misconduct, city officials circulated racist emails, including one which “described a man seeking to obtain ‘welfare’ for his dogs because they are ‘mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.’”
The DOJ’s investigation provided an insightful analysis, complete with an outline of necessary reforms. According to the Washington Post, the city is trying “to negotiate reforms to address the problems found” which is indicative of the inability for police and criminal justice systems to accept the severity of the problem. The city should have no ability to negotiate reforms. Negotiation suggests certain reforms can be left out; if we respect civil rights, all suggested reforms must be enforced. Instead of focusing reform on Ferguson, the DOJ efforts should critique and revise the criminal justice system and culture in its entirety. The DOJ cannot allow undeniable bigotry to persist through piecemeal reform. Systemic problems require systemic reform.
Racism is an innate problem within society. While all may be susceptible to this toxic form of hegemonic bigotry, the criminal justice system must be held to a higher standard. They must be held strictly accountable for their actions. If they are to protect and uphold the law they must exhibit the most flawless form of unbiased operation possible. Focusing reform on the most publicized areas of concern only serves to allow the problem to persist elsewhere. This is a cultural problem, which the DOJ could begin to dismantle with meaningful reform.
The DOJ needs to investigate municipal, county and state systems that historically support or acquiesce to racist and bigoted individuals and cultures. They must also reform the legal system, which serves to facilitate recidivism and place the harshest penalties on petty crimes, locking away minorities at an astronomical rate, allowing only those who can afford bail or good legal representation to avoid prison time. The DOJ must revise laws that perpetuate and exacerbate this inequality—including Federal law, which supports institutionalized racism just the same.
The systemic nature of this problem does not infer that all police officers or judges are racist. The problem, instead, is indicative of a society that does little to weed out those who maintain such venomous views. A racist culture exists outside the individual as a cancer of the system. Our system is stricken with a growing cancer, and one that requires eradication. This problem is deserving of reforms far greater than the DOJ report prescribes. Society needs to change, and while shifting culture is an arduous task, reform should begin with those who are legally obligated to protect all citizens and ensure justice.