After Ferguson, Mo., erupted last year in flames and protests over the Michael Brown shooting, some wondered why so much anger came boiling out of one small Midwestern city.
After all, shootings of unarmed black men have happened cities across the country – Charlotte among them – without the kind of volcanic civil unrest that brings the network TV news to town.
We now have some insight into why, thanks to the 103-page report the U.S. Justice Department released Wednesday detailing its investigation into Ferguson’s police department.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, or how you feel about Michael Brown, the results should disturb you.
The report details a city government that preyed on its own citizens. Ferguson’s justice system focused on extracting fines from residents rather than protecting them.
The city built big increases in municipal fees and fines into its annual budgets, then asked the police to meet those goals.
Note the city’s finance director’s March 2010 memo to the police chief. Its casual tone is almost as shocking as its message: “Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year …Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant matter.”
The city essentially turned its police officers into tax collectors, aggressively confronting and ticketing residents whenever possible. One periodically homeless woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail and paid $550 – over an illegal parking charge.
Citations shot up 50 percent from 2010 to 2014, even though the number of charges for more serious municipal offenses such as assault and driving while intoxicated stayed relatively constant.
Partly because of such predatory policies, the report says, many officers saw blacks “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
It’s not hard to trace a straight line from that mindset to the angry crowds officers battled after Brown’s death.
Burdened by their own racist emails and racially disparate policing statistics, Ferguson officials are struggling to defend themselves. They likely will seek a settlement with federal authorities.
Why does any of this matter beyond Ferguson? Because it reminds us of the immense power the justice system wields, and the corrosive mistrust that blooms when that power is wielded improperly.
Michael Brown’s case lit the match that sparked last year’s unrest. But the city’s aggressive, dollar-centric policing helped supply the kindling.
We can argue over whether Michael Brown’s hands were up, or whether the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson was the right one.
But we must agree that officials who prey on their citizens have no business in public office.
Let’s hope for a thorough house-cleaning in Ferguson.