Analysis

Ferguson's predatory police are not the only ones

The scathing, 105-page Justice Department report on Ferguson, Mo.'s civil-rights abusing police garnered headlines around the world. Though, as Neil Macdonald writes, it was not that unusual and far from the only indictment of America's police.

Long list of U.S. police forces chastized for picking on minorities, the vulnerable

St. Louis County police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Three employees in the police and municipal court were fired after the DOJ report for "egregious racial bias," but no officer or anyone in authority has been charged with a crime. (Reuters)

I'm probably naïve and certainly bourgeois and obviously white, but I've always felt lucky to have lived so many years in America.

In the U.S., the law rules, not corrupt satraps or violent police. Or at least, that's the way it's supposed to be.

What I saw on my first visit to Cairo 17 years ago — a beer-bellied police thug kicking a beggar woman in the face and belly while his partner pinned her arms — would not be tolerated in America.

Her right to beg would, in principle, be protected by law here.

This is a nation with a constitution, a powerful founding document ordinary Americans commonly carry in their pockets. People here believe in it. They think, because they were told in civics class, that it shields them from arbitrary measures.

Well, they probably should know better, and so should I.

Here's a suggestion: Instead of eating up Tom Clancy's latest jingoistic best-seller, curl up tonight with the 105-page report published last week by the U.S. Justice Department about the predatory police actions in Ferguson, Mo.

You will read about officers who couldn't give a toss about the law — a force that routinely punished citizens who exercised their legal right to record police abuses, or those who had the gall to cite their constitutional rights.

"Talking back" is how Ferguson's officers regarded that sort of insolence.

The report is the story of gun-toting, badge-wearing louts who probably spent hours imagining themselves as impassive, reluctant heroes, telexes in their ears, steely eyes concealed behind sunglasses, preparing to do whatever necessary to enforce the law.

In reality, they ran their little corner of Missouri like a lawless seigneury, bullying citizens, ignoring the law, abetted by an equally bent municipal court system. Ordinary folks didn't stand a chance.

The federal report effectively describes Ferguson's police as thuggish tax collectors, willing to use Tasers, fists and boots to satisfy their political masters' desire for ever more revenue.

Their real job was writing tickets, not protecting the public. How much they could milk from motorists, or pedestrians, determined their career paths.

A few highlights:

  • Ferguson's mostly white police department blatantly targeted black citizens. "Failure to comply" with police orders that the DOJ said were often illegal, and "walking unsafely in the street" were among the most popular money-generating citations.
  • Officers were particularly harsh with anyone who dared record their behaviour. They would issue an order to stop recording "for safety reasons;" those who kept rolling were charged with failing to comply. Smartphones were seized, video erased.
  • Drivers were cited for imaginary offences. One man was written up and fined for making a false statement. He'd given his name as "Mike" instead of "Michael."
  • Ferguson police disproportionately went after the poor, who, if they didn't pay promptly, did jail time and had their fines increased. One woman spent days in jail and paid hundreds of dollars for two parking tickets; she still owes $541.

The report is a tale of overweening government and abuse of power in America, just the sort of thing you'd expect would make freedom-loving American conservatives rise up and roar.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discusses the Justice Department's findings in two investigations regarding the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson. (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters )

Instead, nothing. In fact, some conservative writers have denounced the federal investigation of Ferguson's police as an unfair imposition of federal power on local authority.

Some have suggested Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black (and works for a black president), hates white police. Others have stated flatly that it is only natural that Ferguson police principally targeted blacks, given that blacks commit more offences.

Not a single Ferguson officer faces charges.

Cash grab

As the New York Times recently noted, Ferguson is hardly unique. The only reason Ferguson was targeted in the first place by the Justice Department's civil rights division was the shooting of an unarmed black man and the ensuing riots last summer.

Statistics suggest police and court officials in other, nearby municipalities are just as anxious to grab the public's money, and just as likely to abuse minorities.

Across the U.S. South and Mid-West, county and municipal and state police have piled on board a federal scheme to seize the cash of private citizens on the assumption it comes from the proceeds of crime.

It began with suspected drug dealers, but eventually metastasized into a billion-dollar shakedown of anyone foolish enough to carry serious money in their own vehicles.

Police take classroom lessons in how to find and seize cash, thereby bolstering their budgets.

In New York, officers strangled a man who was selling loose cigarettes, tightening their chokehold as he protested he couldn't breathe. An officer in Fairfax, Va., shot a white man dead through his own front door, a man who other police on the scene say was unarmed and following orders.

A demonstrator symbolically raises her hands in New York's Times Square as she joined others in protest against a grand jury's decision in November not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. (The Associated Press)

A federal court is now supervising police in Cleveland, after an earlier federal Justice Department report detailed police using guns, Tasers and fists against helpless suspects, including the mentally ill.

The list of federally investigated forces goes on: Maricopa County, Az.; East Haven, Conn.;Albuquerque, New Mexico; New Orleans, La.; Newark, New Jersey.

In Miami Gardens, Fla., National Public Radio documented the horrendous story of police who routinely hounded minority residents to fill arrest quotas.

A law-abiding, mentally impaired employee of a local convenience store — a black man — was such an easy target that he was arrested 258 times in four years, often dragged out of his bedroom in the back of the establishment.

Again, a federal Justice Department inquiry found widespread violations of citizens' rights.

Yes, there is a constitution in America. But in Ferguson, and all sorts of other places here, you're a long way from the Supreme Court.

Be wary. Be careful. Submit totally if you cross paths with police.

And as our governments constantly increase police powers, citing terrorism and crime, it may be worth reflecting on what poses the greatest threat to your personal liberty.

President Barack Obama and his family walk with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday" in the original march on Selma, Ala., 50 years ago. In his remarks, the president called for addressing police bigotry and abuse. (The Associated Press)

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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