Will the Ferguson Reports Bring Frustration or Hope for Change?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Update: The police force in Ferguson were standing in line with approximately 25 other officers when two were shot, with a third shot gone astray. The shooting follows the decreasing protests still occurring in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and the trail against Officer Darren Wilson, and the resignation of Chief Tom Jackson. Neither officer was killed, but both are in serious condition, one after sustaining a shot in the shoulder, the other in the face. The perpetrator has not been caught. “We are lucky by God’s grace that we didn’t lose two police officers,” said St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, according to ABC News.

Two separate reports from the Department of Justice were published earlier this year which held two very different conclusions pertaining to police activity in Ferguson, Mo. In a general sense, the reports and the related statement from Attorney General Eric Holder are good news for citizens of Ferguson who believe the law enforcement there is of great concern and needs major reform. But on the more specific case of Michael Brown’s death and actions taken by Officer Darren Wilson, those displeased with the decision not to indict Wilson will be disappointed once again. So how can an investigation take fault with the police force, but not with the police action that sparked the recent cascade of events, protests, and criticism — even the investigation itself?

“This morning, the Justice Department announced … our findings and conclusions that the facts do not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson,” said Holder, emphasizing that the investigation was both thorough and objective. “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 … 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.” Rather than questioning the credibility of the investigation, Holder urges the public to consider “how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly and be accepted so readily.”

This is not a criticism of public outcry so much as an explanation that civilians are not wrong to feel that there’s something rotten in Ferguson. They aren’t wrong to be upset, even if the case of Michael Brown does not legally merit action that so many locals and protestors would like to see taken. He describes reactions to the Brown case as though they are a symptom, but not the illness, making the first report a reprieve of police in St. Louis, and the second report a condemnation. The first 86-page report dealt solely with the case of Michael Brown, going into substantial detail on everything from autopsy reports to witness accounts and comparisons, and DNA analysis results and how they line up with and relate to verbal description of events. There is evidence given and conclusions made on a number of the more controversial versions of events out there, such as the claim that Wilson choked brown, or the controversy over whether or not Wilson was aware Brown had been involved in a small theft from a local liquor store. While there undoubtedly will still be many that read the report and take issue with some of the conclusions, or do not trust aspects of the investigation, the two criteria listed at the beginning of the report for what must be true to file criminal charges are worth noting.

The first “standard” that must be met for the federal prosecutors to seek indictment is that they “must be convinced that the potential defendant committed a federal crime,” which judging by the report, they are not.

The second is also important however, in that it reveals just how unlikely an indictment ever was. The prosecutors must believe that “we would be likely to prevail at trial.” Even if, during the investigation, prosecutors were willing to say they believed with utter certainty that a crime had been committed, they would also have to look at the report recently published and judge whether they could make it hold up in court. This is a weighty, near impossible challenge with such a politicized case and with so many conflicting accounts.So, as disappointed in the decision as many will be, the investigative findings, and the legal requirements before prosecutors are just simply too little to go on. The second 105-page report was far more straightforward and condemning toward the city and its law enforcement procedures. According to the report’s in-depth investigation, violations of both First and Fourth Amendments were found to be common — with “protected expression” and “excessive force” violations. The report went into specific examples of officer misconduct, and reported overall bias and civil rights violations with prejudicial police stops.

This bias is present not only in Ferguson, but throughout the United States, according to FiveThirtyEight, which states that 12.8% of all black drivers were stopped in 2014, while only 10.4% and 9.8% of Latino or white drivers were stopped in the same time span, respectively. The analysis points out that it’s difficult to compare this nationally because the racial demographics in Ferguson are very different from the racial demographics of other areas of the United States, but it’s clear from the Department of Justice’s investigation that there is an obvious emphasis on race when it comes to stopping cars.

Another policy-related problem found with Ferguson’s police force is the emphasis placed on revenue. Many police departments make a certain amount of money via charges and cases taken to court. But the importance placed on this can determine the level of aggression and type of enforcement put into play in an area. Ferguson places enormous importance on revenue, and the results are obvious and damning.

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