Special Report: Ferguson Police Profiling of Blacks a Major Funding Source for City Budget
The city of Ferguson’s second-highest source of revenue is court fees and traffic tickets handed out by a majority white police force that disproportionately targets the black community
PROTESTER: I’m sick of everybody saying we’re fucking slaves. We ain’t no damn slaves.
CROWD (CALL AND ANSWER): Hands up! Don’t shoot!
JIHAN HAFIZ, PRODUCER: The murder of Michael Brown has become the source of what musician Lauryn Hill poetically called “black rage” in her dedication to the slain 18-year-old. On the streets of Brown’s hometown, Ferguson, now internationally known after the militarization of the community, victims of police harassment and intimidation describe what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
INTERVIEWER: Have you been racially profiled before?
TEZ PO, 20, GREEN VALLEY RESIDENT: Since I was 13. Since I was 13 I’ve been racially profiled.
ALFONSO, 16, FERGUSON RESIDENT: They stop me ’cause I got dreads. I guess I’m supposed to be a criminal.
ANTON, 19, FERGUSON RESIDENT: These dirty-ass police, all of them, Ferguson, ain’t never been no good since we was kids. They used to pick me and my homeboys up and harass us.
PROTESTER: It’s such a horrific experience, just dealing with the police, such a horrific experience having someone put their hands on you, violate your space.
HAFIZ: In the apartment complex where Michael Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson, the community is doing what was once unthinkable: openly voicing the racism they face on a daily basis.
PARISELLA, FERGUSON RESIDENT: I’ve got a six-year-old son. What’s going to happen when my son turns 17 and he walking down the street? He already got two strikes against him: he’s black and he’s a man. Now he can’t have no tattoos, long hair out the window.
BONNIE, FERGUSON RESIDENT: It’s their saying, like, he want to mark his territory, basically, to show how much authority they got. That’s what I think with all these cops killing all these young men, a man on Riverview, Mike–they’re just trying to show how much authority they have over us, what they can do to us.
DEVON, FERGUSON RESIDENT: Damn Ferguson police, if you know the history about them, they’re not right anyway. You know, their history’s not right. They’re racists.
BEN, FERGUSON RESIDENT: Any time they feel that they want to be sharpening on their shooting skills, they find a black man to kill or a black woman. And the reason why they’re doing this is because they can get away with it.
ELLA, FERGUSON RESIDENT: We couldn’t take it anymore. And then to make matters even worse, not even a week later, two police officers killed another one of our guys. And it’s ridiculous. It’s sad. It’s horrible. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. I don’t know what to do.
HAFIZ: Adding fuel to the fire, another young black man, Kajieme Powell, was gunned down last week four miles away from where Brown was killed.
HAFIZ: The incident was caught on tape. After shooting the young man several times, officers handcuffed his dead body, sparking even more outrage over what many here call the blatant disregard for black lives.
PROTESTER: They could have shot him in the hand. They could have tased him. They could have tackled him. There are a number of things that they could have done. It could have been my son.
HAFIZ: Statistics indicate racial profiling is not only common in Ferguson, but systematic. A recent study/report conducted by ArchCity Defenders found the rate at which black residents are pulled over or issued petty fines is disproportionate to the black population of Ferguson. Eighty-seven percent of vehicle stops and traffic fines are issued to black residents, although they make up 67 percent of the population, compared to just 12 percent of vehicle stops and fines given to white residents, who make up 27 percent of Ferguson’s population. Statistics recorded by the Ferguson Police Department show an overwhelming majority of the court cases that go through Ferguson’s municipal court involved black residents.
THOMAS HARVEY, EXEC. DIR., ARCHCITY DEFENDERS: And it shows that there’s a disproportionate number of people pulled over, even in proportion to their representative population, in Ferguson, Florissant, and Bel-Ridge.
HAFIZ: Police singling out black commuters and residents is twice and sometimes three times more likely than their white neighbors. Once pulled over or stopped by the police, black residents are typically searched without warrants, fined, and/or arrested. Of the 60 municipalities surveyed in the report, Ferguson was among the three worst counties for vehicle stops and petty fines targeting black residents.
HARVEY: We decided to focus on three courts where we saw the most egregious examples. And that was Bel-Ridge, Ferguson, and Florissant. And when we looked at their budgets, it completely supported what our clients were saying. Ferguson budgets predicts that it will earn in revenue $2.65 million from court costs and fines per year. And that number has increased steadily from 2010 to 2013. So Florissant is the neighboring municipality, and it estimates it’ll bring in another–I think it’s $1.5 million or $1.6 million net off of these fines. So you’ve got two municipalities right next door to one another who’ve got over $4 million in fines that are being brought in, generally derived from traffic tickets. I want to be clear. These aren’t felonies. These aren’t violent infractions. These are the lowest level possible contact with the criminal justice system. You can get tickets in these courts for not cutting your grass.
TEZ PO: They’d give us walking tickets. They ain’t even got–do they got such a thing as walking tickets? We can’t even walk down the street without them pulling up and trying to find out what’s going on with us. We can’t walk to the store without them pulling us over and wanting to see–find out what we’ve got and what’s on us and what are we up to.
ANTON: I’m talking about harassment. They have to harass me. And then it’s one thing they see you probably stole something sometime before you–a little time ago. They start seeing you on the street. They’re going to pull you over. What? What’s going on? And they can just tell me, I know you’re a thief, and you all never [keeping none of that jewelry (?)].
UNIDENTIFIED: Just times where I just got pulled over for no reason. Like, I got my car searched, like, you know, three, four times already.
HAFIZ: With a warrant or without a warrant?
HAFIZ: Without a warrant?
UNIDENTIFIED: Without a warrant.
HARVEY: Now, when they get to court, they report not being treated very humanely. And we have witnessed that. We’ve witnessed judges and prosecutors being very dismissive. There are courts in Jennings where there’ll be hundreds and hundreds of people outside that court. And this contributes to our clients’ feeling that they’re not being treated very well is if it’s 105 degrees outside, they don’t let them in the court before the court starts. And it doesn’t matter how much space there is. There could be plenty of room for everybody to get in and get out of the heat. But they make them stand in the parking lot.
PROTESTER: Ferguson and the surrounding counties are not having court. You know why? They don’t want the media to see the lines of black people going to court,–
PROTESTER: Of black people that are standing outside.
PROTESTER: –standing outside, paying their money. They don’t want you–they don’t want you to see all that. I bet you as soon as the cameras get up out of here, business as usual.
HAFIZ: And when the business of the county’s second source of revenue income relies heavily on the county’s poorest residents, advocates for reforming the legal justice system say it’s no surprise black members of the community complain of racial profiling and driving the black population further into poverty and social alienation.
HARVEY: It’s a structural problem. It’s systemic racism. You could put African-American judges in those courts, you could put all the African-American police you wanted on the street, and that may lower–can be an effective filter when they come into contact, if minorities come in contact with judges who reflect–who look like them–that may be better, but it doesn’t change anything about the system that’s in place. And the fact that once a line item on a budget says, we’re going to collect $2.6 million from court costs and fines, the number’s not going down.
PROTESTER: So what are you specifically doing about racial profiling is the question.
JAMES KNOWLES III, MAYOR OF FERGUSON: I mean, we train our officers. We’ll continue to train our officers to continue to work [crosstalk]
PROTESTER: You think the cop was right for killing Mike Brown?
KNOWLES: I have no idea what went on that day.
PROTESTER: What do you mean?
KNOWLES: The investigation [crosstalk]
PROTESTER: You’re the mayor of this city, and you have no idea what’s going on?
PROTESTER: Let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. No, hold on! Hold up!
PROTESTER: You said the police officer received great training on how to interact with the community, how to interface with the community, on not to racially profile, correct?
KNOWLES: I did not just say that.
PROTESTER: No, I’m asking you. But they receive training on how to be fair to the citizen and protect and serve their citizens, correct?
PROTESTER: Well, why do the numbers bear out that the training and operations they do are racially motivated, that the numbers don’t fit what the demographics is?
KNOWLES: What’s the problem?
PROTESTER: That’s the problem.
KNOWLES: What’s the problem?
PROTESTER: You are white,–
KNOWLES: Yeah, that’s the problem?
PROTESTER: –we need you out here,–
KNOWLES: No, that’s the problem.
PROTESTER: –and you sit at home–
KNOWLES: That’s the problem? Okay.
PROTESTER: –and watch television with your wife?!
KNOWLES: I just hope everybody saw that that’s the problem.
PROTESTER: Of course! It is the problem! It’s no secret! It’s no secret!
PROTESTER: You’re a white man and have no connection to the black community that you’re a mayor of!
PROTESTER: You are disconnected!
HAFIZ: When The Real News asked Mayor Knowles about the findings in the report, he had this to say.
KNOWLES: I’m not familiar with that report, so I couldn’t comment on it. So I’m not familiar with what’s going on in that report.
PROTESTER: If you go into the books [as far as the (?)] system, the system will tell you that you are a slave, that you are an indentured servant.
PROTESTER: You listen to the system. I don’t want to listen to the system. The system will break you down.
HAFIZ: Back in Brown’s neighborhood, community organizing to implement immediate changes to the justice system continue with no end in sight. This week, community leaders and legal advisers plan to submit a list of solutions to the racial tensions and inequalities that have remained hidden in Ferguson for decades.
Jihan Hafiz for The Real News, Ferguson, Missouri.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.