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.
What we know so far about the Justice Department's probe into Michael Brown's death.
Jaeah LeeAug. 22, 2014 6:00 AM
Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson.
Update March 3, 2015:The New York Times and others report that the Justice Department has concluded its civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. The DOJ accused Ferguson officers of routinely exercising racial bias and excessive force, and making unjustified traffic stops for years. The full report is expected on March 4. A separate DOJ investigation into Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson is expected to clear him of criminal wrongdoing.
On August 11, the Department of Justice announced that FBI agents were working with attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and US Attorney's Office to conduct what Attorney General Eric Holder promised would be a "thorough and complete investigation" into the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, more than 40 FBI agents have arrived in the St. Louis suburb to interview witnesses and canvas the neighborhood where Brown was shot by a police officer on August 9.
The following week, the AG himself arrived in Ferguson for a series of meetings with federal investigators, local authorities, and community members. Writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holder said, "At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn—in a fair and thorough manner—exactly what happened."
What exactly happens when the feds step in to investigate a case like Michael Brown's? A quick explainer:
What is the Justice Department investigating? Holder initially announced that the DOJ is specifically investigating "the shooting death of Michael Brown," and "looking for violations of federal, criminal civil rights statutes." The investigation is separate from local authorities' investigation. Some have asked the DOJ to take a broader view: In a letter to Holder on August 11, Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), and William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) asked the DOJ to consider expanding the scope of its investigation to include "the potential for any pattern or practice of police misconduct by the Ferguson Police Department." Meanwhile, the US Commission on Civil Rights, a panel appointed by the president and members of Congress, has asked the DOJ to look into the disproportionately low representation of African Americans on Ferguson's police force and city council. On September 3, a federal and Missouri official told CNN that the DOJ will also investigate complaints involving Ferguson police and how the department operates, to determine whether it is compliant with federal standards.
What could happen as a result of the DOJ investigation? The findings of the investigations could lead to a federal prosecution against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown.
Who is conducting the investigation? So far, three branches of the DOJ are working together on the federal investigation. More than 40 FBI agents from the St. Louis field office are canvassing the area and interviewing witnesses. They're working with the Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney's Office, which would handle a potential prosecution. Within the Civil Rights Division, two sections appear to be involved: There's the Criminal Section, which "prosecutes cases involving the violent interference with liberties and rights defined in the Constitution or federal law," including excessive use of force by police officers; also, the Special Litigation Section conducts investigations into systematic violations of civil rights by state and local institutions, including police departments. The Criminal Section launched the initial investigation into the death of Michael Brown.
What triggered the investigation? Generally, DOJ investigations into civil rights violations can begin in response to an official complaint filed with the Civil Rights Division, or in response to major events like those in Ferguson. The CRD has not said if there was an official complaint filed by citizens, or if the department decided to initiate the investigation on its own. "There's no rule book" that the department follows to determine if a case warrants an investigation, explains Samuel Walker, a criminal-justice scholar at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The Civil Rights Division doesn't announce all of its investigative activities. The agency has not responded to a request for comment on what percentage of incoming complaints it decides to investigate, and why. But back in 2012, then-DOJ spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told my colleague AJ Vicens that "the department investigates each jurisdiction based on the allegations received. There is no one-size-fits all approach to our investigations or our settlements."
Where else besides Ferguson is the DOJ investigating civil rights violations? The Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section is currently investigating systematic violations of civil rights by law enforcement in at least 34 other jurisdictions across 17 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, according to a list on the DOJ website. But these cases are different from the investigation in Ferguson, which so has been focused on Wilson's shooting of Brown, which falls under the purview of CRD's Criminal Section. A new investigation into department-wide practices would fall under Special Litigation. According to its website, the Special Litigation Section can step in "if we find a pattern or practice by the law enforcement agency that systemically violates people's rights.Harm to a single person, or isolated action, is usually not enough to show a pattern or practice that violates these laws." The Criminal Section, meanwhile, lists 17 past investigations into criminal misconduct by law enforcement officials in 11 states.
The Justice Department's Office for Civil Rights, which is separate from the Civil Rights Division, monitors discrimination in DOJ-funded state and local law enforcement institutions. In a May 2013 memo, OCR reported that over the previous four years, it handled 346 discrimination complaints, many of them alleging that federally funded law enforcement agencies "engaged in unlawful racial profiling in conducting traffic stops."
Since when does the DOJ investigate civil rights violations? The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorizes the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section "to review the practices of law enforcement agencies that may be violating people's federal rights," and oversees cases involving discrimination—prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—in state or local agencies receiving federal funds. As a result of these special litigation cases dating back to 1997, the St. Louis Post-Dispatchreports that 21 police departments across the country have signed consent agreements with the DOJ to improve their procedures and policies, often the use of force and relationships with minority communities. Samuel Walker says that the number of these cases fell dramatically during the Bush administration, but picked back up under the Obama administration, which has doubled the size of the special litigations unit. While criminal civil rights prosecutions under the DOJ date back to 1939, the Criminal Section's powers were limited until the Civil Rights Division was created in 1957 as part of the Civil Rights Act.
How else is the DOJ involved in Ferguson? Holder has announced that the DOJ's COPS (Community-Oriented Policing Services) office and Office of Justice Programs are also assisting local authorities "in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force." It's unclear how this assistance has played out on the streets of Ferguson.Holder added that Justice Department officials from the Community Relations Service are also helping "convene law enforcement officials and civic and faith leaders to plot out steps to reduce tensions in the community."
When will we see some results from the investigation? It may be a while. As Holder wrote in Wednesday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community." For now, there are many more questions than answers.
Jaeah Lee and Katie Rose QuandtAug. 20, 2014 6:00 AM
In the week since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, initial autopsy findings, police reports, and eyewitness accounts have begun to provide some insights into the circumstances of his death. But plenty of questions remain unanswered, not the least of them: Where is Officer Darren Wilson, and what's likely to happen to him?
Wilson, who was put on administrative leave after killing Brown, reportedly left home with his family a few days before his name was made public. A fundraising campaign launched on August 17 has already raised more than $10,000 to cover the financial needs of Wilson's family, "including legal fees." (The campaign has since increased its goal to $100,000.)
It remains to be seen whether Wilson will face criminal charges, but a limited review of similar killings by police suggests that the officers more often than not walk away without an indictment, and are very rarely convicted. Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, looked at 21 publicized cases from 1994 through 2009 in which a police officer killed an unarmed black person. Of those, only seven cases resulted in an indictment—for criminally negligent homicide, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, or violation of civil rights—and only three officers were found guilty.
Let's take a closer look at five specific cases in which an unarmed black man was killed by officers while allegedly fleeing or resisting in some fashion.
City: Memphis, Tennessee Date: October 1974 Officers: Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright Victim: Edward Garner What happened: Officers Hymon and Wright were responding to a burglary call when Hymon spotted Garner, an unarmed 15-year-old, by a fence in the backyard of the home in question. After Hymon ordered Garner to halt, the teenager tried to climb the fence. In response, the officer shot him fatally in the head. A federal district court ruled that the shooting was justified under a Tennessee statute—the law said that once a police officer voices intent to arrest a suspect, "the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest." Garner's father appealed, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled the Tennessee statute unconstitutional and the killing unjustified. Justice Byron White wrote for the majority: "It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead." Despite the reversal, the officer who shot Hymon was never charged.
Iris and Ramon Baez, parents of Anthony Baez, address the media after the sentencing of former police officer Frank Livoti Lynsey Addario/AP
City: Bronx, New York Date: December 1994 Officer: Francis X. Livoti Victim: Anthony Baez What happened: Officer Livoti choked to death 29-year-old Anthony Baez in a case that would later be featured in a PBS documentary titled Every Mother's Son. After their football struck his patrol car, Livoti had ordered Baez and his brother to leave the area. When the brothers refused, Livoti attempted an arrest. After Baez allegedly resisted, the officer administered the choke hold that ended his life. Livoti, who had been accused of brutality 11 times over 11 years, was charged with criminally negligent homicide, but found not guilty during a state trial in October 1996. He was fired the following year, however, after a judge ruled his choke hold illegal. In June 1998, a federal jury sentenced him to 7.5 years in prison for violating Baez's civil rights, and the Baez family received a $3 million settlement from the city later that year. In 2003, two more cops were fired for giving false testimony in Livoti's defense.
Officers Richard Murphy, left, Kenneth Boss, center, and Edward McMellon listen to their attorneys speak to the media, Mar. 31, 1999. David Karp/AP
City: Bronx, New York Date: February 1999 Officers: Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss, Richard Murphy Victim: Amadou Diallo What happened: Amadou Diallo, an unarmed, 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed in the vestibule of his own building when four white police officers fired 41 shots, striking him 19 times. Diallo had just returned home from his job as a street vendor at 12:44 a.m. when he was confronted by the plainclothes officers. The officers later said he matched the description of a rape suspect, and that they mistakenly believed he was reaching for a gun. (He was pulling out his wallet.) Three of the officers had been involved in previous shootings, including one that led to the death of another black civilian in 1997. The four cops were acquitted of all charges, prompting citywide protests. They were not fired, either, but lost permission to carry a weapon—although one of the officers eventually had his carrying privilege restored. In 2004, Diallo's family received a $3 million settlement from the city. His mother said her son had been saving to attend college and become a computer programmer. A foundation in Diallo's name seeks to promote racial healing.
A candlelit vigil for Anthony Dwain Lee in front of the West Los Angeles police station, Oct 30, 2000 Kim D. Johnson/AP
City: Los Angeles, California Date: October 2000 Officer: Tarriel Hopper Victim: Anthony Dwain Lee What happened: Lee, a 39-year-old black actor who had roles in the 1997 movie Liar Liar and the TV series ER, was attending a Halloween party when the LAPD showed up, responding to a noise complaint. According to police accounts, a group of officers were searching for the party's host when they found Lee and two other men in a small room, engaged in what the police claimed looked like a drug deal. Lee, who was dressed as a devil, allegedly held up a toy pistol, whereupon Officer Hopper fired several times, wounding him fatally. The LAPD's internal review board determined that the shooting was justified because Hopper had believed Lee's pistol was real and feared for his life.
Johannes Mehserle, left, talks with his attorney Christopher Miller, Jan. 14, 2009. Cathleen Allison/AP
City: Oakland, California Date: January 2009 Officer: Johannes Mehserle Victim: Oscar Grant What happened: Early on New Year's Day, BART transit officers responding to reports of fighting on a train detained Oscar Grant, 22, and several other men on the platform at Fruitvale Station. In an incident captured on cell phone cameras, Officer Mehserle pulled out his gun and fatally shot Grant, who was face down on the platform at the time. Mehserle later testified that he thought he was reaching for his Taser while trying to put handcuffs on Grant, who resisted. A jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in jail. He was released after serving 11 months at the Los Angeles County Jail. The episode was turned into the acclaimed 2013 feature film, Fruitvale Station.
AJ Vicens, Tasneem Raja, and Jaeah LeeAug. 18, 2014 11:12 PM
The situation in Ferguson continued to deteriorate Monday night. The curfew imposed by Gov. Jay Nixon was lifted Monday as he called in the National Guard to help police the area. We kept tabs on the livestreams coming from Moustafa Hussein at Argus Radio and Tim Pool at Vice News (embedded below). See below for more updates as events unfolded.
1:06 a.m. CDT, Argus: Hussein and other media are gathered in the designated press area outside the protest area, waiting for updates. We're signing off for the night, but check back in the morning for more updates.
12:45 a.m. CDT, Argus: Hussein and his colleague are turned away at another entry point to the protest area. There appears to be a lot of confusion over where journalists and protestors can and can't go. As the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery tweeted earlier:
12:15 a.m. CDT, Argus: "Something is happening in the neighborhood and they're keeping media completely away from it," Hussein says. "Every time we get to the street that officers told us to go to, we're being told to go to another area."
11:53 p.m. CDT, Vice: Vice's Tim Pool trying to get into press area but can't find his credential. Officer: "Credentials." Pool: "I lost it when I was getting shot at." Officer: "Well you're not getting through." (Officer rips off "PRESS" decal on Pool's vest) "This doesn't mean shit."
11:52 p.m. CDT, Argus: Police officers appear to arrest several protesters. One officer tells the Argus reporter that all media needs to go up 2.5 miles back to the press area near the Target store, apologizing for the inconvenience. "We don't get told much," the officer says. Meanwhile:
FOX 2 News: One person shot in the hand in #Ferguson, and taken to St. Louis hospital
11:45 p.m. CDT, Argus: Police repeatedly tell protesters: "Everyone on the Ferguson-Market parking lot needs to leave immediately or you will be subject to arrest, with the exception of credentialed media. Do it now. Or you will be subject to arrest." Moments later, a line of police officers proceeds down the street, holding up their weapons:
11:41 p.m. CDT, Vice: Tim Pool, Vice News reporter, to officer: "Are there live shots?" Officer: "Yes. Bad guys shot. We didn't shoot."
11:30 p.m. CDT, Argus: Police ask media to shut off the lights on their cameras.
11 p.m. CDT, Vice: Police begin deploying smoke, tear gas, and flash bang grenades. Vice reporter Tim Pool, who is filming the feed, says he was hit in the leg by a rubber bullet.
10:40 CDT, Argus: Police rush in and grab two protesters, one a woman who can be heard saying she is trying to get home.
10:20 CDT, Argus: Protest leaders are able to calm an increasingly tense situation by moving media and protesters out of the street and onto the sidewalk after police give indications they might move on the crowd.
10pm CDT, Argus: Antonio French, a local alderman, can be seen trying to calm down several aggressive protesters, and keeping media from getting too close to police. The police have also deployed, on and off, a noise device to try and disperse the crowd. Read our interview with French here.
The killing in Ferguson was one of many such cases. Here's what the data reveals.
Jaeah LeeAug. 15, 2014 6:00 AM
The killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was no anomaly: As we reported yesterday, Brown is one of at least four unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in the last month alone. Therearemanymorecases from years past. As Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Missouri chapter put it in a statement of condolence to Brown's family, "Unarmed African-American men are shot and killed by police at an alarming rate. This pattern must stop."
But quantifying that pattern is difficult. Federal databases that track police use of force or arrest-related deaths paint only a partial picture. Police department data is scattered and fragmented. No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way.
Here's some of what we do know:
Previous attempts to analyze racial bias in police shootings have arrived at similar conclusions. In 2007, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporterinvestigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities, and found that there were a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every one, particularly in New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas.
More MoJo coverage of the Michael Brown police shooting
"We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds," NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks told Mother Jones. It's a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with "overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force," he says.
In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities. Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, the NAACP found, no officers were charged. (These numbers don't include 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a transit authority officer at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day of 2009.)
The New York City Police Department has reported similar trends in its firearms discharge report, which shows that more black people have been shot by NYPD officers between 2000 and 2011 than have Hispanics or whites.
When you look at the racial breakdown of New Yorkers, black people are disproportionately represented among those targeted as criminal shooting suspects, firearms arrestees, and those fired upon or struck by police gunfire.
NYPD Firearms Discharge Report, 2011
Often, the police officers do not get convicted or sentenced. Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has identified dozens of black men and women who have died at the hands of police going back as far as 1994. She notes that while these incidents happen regularly, it often takes a high-profile case, such as Brown's, to bring other recent incidents to national attention.
"For whatever reason, juries are much less likely to convict" police who kill.
"Unfortunately, the patterns that we've been seeing recently are consistent: The police don't show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill," says Jones-Brown, a former assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County, New Jersey. "And then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor's offices are much less likely to indict or convict."
Between 2003 and 2009, the DOJ reported that 4,813 people died while in the process of arrest or in the custody of law enforcement. These include people who died before an officer physically placed him or her under custody or arrest. This data, known as arrest-related deaths, doesn't reveal a significant discrepancy between whites, blacks, or hispanics. It also doesn't specify how many victims were unarmed. According to the FBI, which has tracked justifiable homicides up to 2012, 410 felons died at the hands of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.*
Bureau of Justice Statistics
But black people are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience a police officer's threat or use of force, according to the Department of Justice's Police Public Contact Survey in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. Of those who felt that police had used or threatened them with force that year, about 74 percent felt those actions were excessive. In another DOJ survey of police behavior during traffic and street stops in 2011, blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to believe that the reason for the stop was legitimate.
The Justice Department has investigated possible systemic abuse of power by police in at least 16 cities.
Police shootings of unarmed black people aren't limited to poor or predominantly black communities. Jones-Brown points to examples where police officers have shot unarmed black men and women in Hollywood, Riverside (California), and Prince Georges County—a Maryland suburb known as the most affluent US county with an African-American majority. "Part of the problem is that black people realize that you don't have to be poor, you don't have to be in your own community...and this can happen to you," she says. These killings occur against black people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds: "Actors, professional football players, college students, high school grads. They happen to black cops, too."
"You don't have to be poor, you don't have to be in your own community...and this can happen to you."
Yet, the lack of comprehensive data means that we can't know if there's been an upsurge in such cases, says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and author of The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America. "It's impossible to make any definitive statement on whether there were more incidents in the last 5 to 10 years than in the past," he says. "We just don't have that kind of data." But what is certain, Walker says, is that the fatal shooting in Ferguson "was just the tip of the iceberg."
UPDATE (8/15/14):USA Today reported that on average there were 96 cases of a white police officer killing a black person each year between 2006 and 2012, based on justifiable homicides reported to the FBI by local police. As I reported above, the FBI's justifiable homicides database paints only a partial picture—accounting for cases in which an officer killed a felon. It does not necessarily include cases involving victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others who were unarmed when confronted by police. The data in this post has been updated with 2012 numbers, and the map has been updated to reflect that certain cases have been closed.
A new analysis underscores why fast-food workers are going on strike.
Jaeah LeeJul. 14, 2014 6:00 AM
Last year, according to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the CEOs of America's top 25 restaurant corporations, including McDonald's, Burger King, the Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, and Jack in the Box, took home an average of 721 times the money minimum-wage workers did, and 194 times the take-home pay of the typical American worker in a production or nonsupervisory job. Restaurants and food services employ nearly half of all American workers who earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (or less).
The report "confirms what we have long known," Cherri Delesline, a McDonald's crew member and mother of four in Charleston, South Carolina, told Mother Jones. Since November 2012, she and hundreds of other fast-food workers have gone on strike in 150 American cities and 80 foreign cities, demanding they be paid $15 per hour. "While CEOs make millions of dollars in profits, we still can't afford to pay our rent or buy clothes for our children," says Delesline, whose hourly pay is $7.35.
"It's a picture of uncontrolled greed," EPI vice president Ross Eisenbrey says. "How can it be that the CEOs are making more in half a day than many of their workers are making in an entire year—and yet they can't afford to raise the pay of those workers?" CEO pay has been out of control across all business sectors since at least the late-1980s, he adds. From 1978 to 2013, for instance, average CEO compensation, adjusted for inflation, soared nearly 1,000 percent, while the typical worker's pay increased by just over 10 percent.
Roughly 1 in 10 American workers are employed by restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry, the trade group predicts, will see $683 billion in sales this year—up 17 percent over 2010. But a greater share of those revenues has been flowing to top executives. As this interactive graph shows, CEO compensation at America's top restaurant chains has ballooned since 2008, while the annual take of their lowest-paid workers has largely flatlined. (This analysis assumes tipped workers reach the federal minimum wage through base pay and tips, although that isn't always the case, as we've reported previously.)
While the recent strikes have pressured a few chains to consider raising their wages, some executives argue that raising pay would hurt business, and franchise owners say their thin profit margins can't bear any increases. Just last week, Andy Puzder, CEO of the conglomerate that owns Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, told Yahoo Finance that raising the federal minimum would force companies like his to raise prices and ultimately reduce job opportunities for young and inexperienced workers. You can't solve the problem, he said, "by having the government artificially mandate a wage increase when there's no economic growth to support that."
Puzder—whose compensation totaled nearly $4.5 million in 2012, or 294 times what minimum-wage workers made that year—claimed that "if government gets out of the way, businesses will create jobs…Wages will go up and the country will go back to a state of prosperity instead of what we're in now."
Actually, the financial information company Sageworks reports that the restaurant industry fared pretty well during the recession, growing at about 5 percent annually since 2009. And the majority of fast-food workers aren't teenagers: More than 60 percent are 20 or older, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. As Huffington Post's Jillian Berman points out, more adults are working in fast food not because they can live off the wages, but simply because they have no better alternatives.
Meanwhile, a new study finds that 61 percent of small business owners favor a minimum wage hike to keep pace with cost of living, supporting previous findings on the topic. Some national retail companies, such as Ikea and Gap, have also chosen to raise their starting wage. Likewise wholesale merchandiser Costco, where entry-level employees get $11.50 an hour. "We know it's a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment, and loyalty," CEO Craig Jelinek said in a statement supporting of a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage—to just over $10.
Here's a list of the 25 CEOs EPI analyzed, and what they made last year.