Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
"You can't generalize about protestors who, it turns out, had some very legitimate grievances."
Jaeah LeeMar. 14, 2015 1:04 AM
During his appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show on Thursday night, President Obama perfectly distilled what's at stake in Ferguson, and what needs to be done next. "In the same way that you can't generalize about police officers who do an extraordinarily tough job—overwhelmingly they do it professionally," he said, "you can't generalize about protestors who, it turns out, had some very legitimate grievances."
Some of the key evidence Justice Department officials cited in their report on Ferguson.
Jaeah LeeMar. 4, 2015 4:40 PM
A Ferguson police officer mans the door to a town hall style meeting, Sept. 22, 2014.
Today the Justice Department released its scathing 105-page report on Ferguson's pervasive discrimination against black residents. The report included references to blatantly racist emails from local officials: One said Obama wouldn't last in office because he's black; another attached a photo of bare-chested group of women, apparently in Africa, captioned "Michelle Obama's High School Reunion." The DOJ found plenty of other evidence of racial bias; below are a few examples. (We're making our way through the report and will add to the list.)
One black Ferguson resident told Justice Department officials about his interaction with a Ferguson police officer, in which the officer told him "N*****, I can find something to lock you up on":
Ferguson city officials and police interviewed by the DOJ "nearly uniformly" said that it was due to a lack of "personal responsibility," not the failure of the law, that African-American members of the Ferguson community were disproportionately targeted by law enforcement:
The DOJ found that Ferguson officials commonly dismissed tickets for friends, showing a "double standard grounded in racial stereotyping":
Ferguson police routinely used Tasers "where less force—or no force at all—would do." Almost 90 percent of the time cops used force, it was against African Americans, and often they used unnecessary force against people with mental health disabilities:
All of the police canine attacks reviewed by the DOJ targeted black residents, including a 14-year-old boy who was hiding in a storage closet. The dog bit his arm, causing puncture wounds:
A white resident who has lived in Ferguson for 48 years told DOJ officials that it felt like Ferguson's policing and court system is "designed to bring a black man down." In other interviews, several black residents talked about Ferguson's "long history of targeting blacks for harassment and degrading treatment"—some talked about changing their commute to work to avoid Ferguson or moving out of the state altogether as a result:
The DOJ called out the following emails sent by Ferguson officials as "illustrative" of racial bias:
Justice Department officials also found evidence that the Ferguson Police Department tolerated sexual harassment by male officers (h/t River Front Times):
More details emerge from the Justice Department's investigation into Ferguson.
Jaeah LeeMar. 3, 2015 10:15 PM
Police watch as protesters marched on Aug. 19, 2014, for Michael Brown.
New details have emerged about the Justice Department's forthcoming report finding patterns of racial discrimination among officials and police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. Among the findings is an email saying that Barack Obama wouldn't last long as president because he's black and data showing that for years, traffic stops, use of force, petty crime charges, and affronts by police canines disproportionately targeted the city's black residents.
Ferguson's black drivers were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be stopped and searched, according to records over two years. Black drivers were also 26 percent less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
According to the police department's internal records concerning force, 88 percent of those cases involved force against blacks. All 14 canine bite incidents involved blacks.
Blacks were 68 percent less likely than others to have their cases dismissed in municipal court. An arrest warrant was more likely to be issued for blacks.
The Justice Department found that the court uses petty crime charges to pad the city's budget. As of December 2014, 16,000 out of Ferguson's 21,000 residents have outstanding warrants for minor violations, including traffic tickets.
A 2008 message in a municipal email account stated that President Barack Obama would not be president for very long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years."
Over a six-month period in 2014, 95 percent of inmates who spent more than two days in the Ferguson jail were black.
Petty offenses disproportionately target black citizens. 95 percent of all "Manner of Walking in Roadway" charges were against blacks.
The DOJ's full report is expected as early as Wednesday.
Who shoulders the big payouts in police misconduct cases?
Jaeah LeeJan. 22, 2015 7:00 AM
Update, July 13, 2015: The City of New York has agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle the wrongful death complaint filed by Eric Garner's family members, according to the New York Times.
When police officers kill unarmed citizens they are rarely charged, let alone convicted of a crime. The victims' families often turn to civil complaints against the police, as is currently the case in New York City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, where wrongful death and other civil rights claims filed in the wake of officer-involved killings could result in payouts tallying in the millions of dollars. Still, the police officers involved are likely to suffer no financial pain. That's because in the vast majority of such cases, whether they are settled or go to court, the officers don't pay a dime.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is currently reviewing civil claims brought by the family of Eric Garner, the 43-year old Staten Island man who died in July 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. The $75 million worth of claims include wrongful death, assault, pain and suffering, and negligent hiring and training by the NYPD. But if the city decides to settle the case with the Garner family, a spokesperson for the comptroller told Mother Jones, Pantaleo will pay nothing.
Officer Pantaleo remains protected from financial liability despite that he was the subject of at least three civil rights lawsuits before the death of Eric Garner.
Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, andfalse arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)
This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."
Even if the Garner family were to take its case to court and prevail, the chances of Pantaleo paying are extremely remote. The 34 cases in the study where New York City officers paid some amount were all resolved with settlements, Schwartz notes, not with judgments in court, which few such cases ever reach.
Moreover, Pantaleo remains protected from financial liability despite that he was the subject of at least three civil rights lawsuits before the death of Garner. One case, in 2013, involved two men from Staten Island who alleged that Pantaleo and three other officers unlawfully stopped and ordered them from their vehicle, then pulled down their pants and "touched and searched their genital areas, or stood by while this was done in their presence." The city paid a $30,000 settlement to the plaintiffs, while the officers paid nothing. Two other lawsuits stemming from a 2012 incident alleged that Pantaleo and other NYPD officers falsely arrested and imprisoned two men, according to federal court records. (Both of those cases are pending.)
Families of unarmed victims shot dead by police have recently filed claims in Cleveland, where police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice over a pellet gun, and in Los Angeles, where officers shot 25-year-old Ezell Ford three times after he allegedly tried to reach for an officer's gun. According to Schwartz's study, Cleveland and LA both paid out millions in police misconduct claims between 2006-11. (See table below.) During that same period, St. Louis—which has become a focal point for police brutality ever since an unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down in the suburb of Ferguson in August 2014—paid out $2.7 million for civil rights claims against police. (The city did not provide Schwartz with details on how much if any of that sum officers were required to pay.) Brown's parents are considering filing a wrongful death claim but remain undecided about doing so, their attorney Anthony Gray told Mother Jones.
In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that police officers should be afforded "qualified immunity" from civil rights claims brought by citizens—the risk of legal exposure could deter officers from carrying out their duties, the court has held—except in cases where an officer has violated "clearly established law." Yet, in other cases the Supreme Court has ruled that municipalities should not be liable for damages incurred by its employees, and that punitive damages can't be awarded against cities. In a 1981 majority opinion, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun stated that if municipalities were held liable for civil claims, it could lead to tax hikes or "a reduction of public services for the citizens footing the bill. Neither reason nor justice suggests that such retribution should be visited upon the shoulders of blameless or unknowing taxpayers." But in Schwartz's view, cities requiring so few officers to pay even for punitive damages "goes against the spirit of that decision."
And the full extent of the costs to taxpayers remains unclear, she notes. Out of the 140 municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies that Schwartz requested records from, only 44 provided extensive data, as detailed in the table below. While additional police departments provided some information on misconduct, the data either did not specify civil rights cases or was too incomplete to analyze.
Top image: Screenshot from a video taken by a witness to the Eric Garner incident.