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Ferguson shooting: Police employee fired, 2 suspended over racist emails

The mayor of Ferguson, Missouri has said he has fired one police department official and suspended two others over racist emails identified in a scathing Justice Department report that faulted the city and its law enforcement for racial bias.

Racist emails included joke about U.S. President Barack Obama

Activist Cornel West is knocked over during a scuffle with police last year during protests over the shooting of Michael Brown. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., says he has fired one police department official and suspended two others over racist emails identified in a scathing Justice Department report that faulted the city and its law enforcement for racial bias.

"Let me be clear, this type of behaviour will not be  tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or in any department in the city of Ferguson," Mayor James Knowles told a news conference. 

"Today's report allows the City of Ferguson to identify the problems not only in our police department but in the St. Louis region," he said. "We must do better not only as a city but as a state and country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of society."

The report issued Wednesday said blacks in Ferguson are disproportionately subject to excessive police force, baseless traffic stops and citations for infractions as petty as walking down the middle of the street.

In a separate report, the Justice Department said it won't prosecute a former Ferguson police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black 18-year-old.

Federal officials concluded there was no evidence to disprove former officer Darren Wilson's testimony that he feared for his safety, nor was there reliable evidence that Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.

The decision in the Aug. 9 shooting had been expected, in part because of the high legal standard needed for a federal civil rights prosecution. Wilson, who has said Brown struck him in the face and reached for his gun during a tussle, was cleared by a Missouri grand jury in November and later resigned from the department.

'Immediate, wholesale' action needed, Holder says

While the federal government declined to prosecute Wilson, it found that the shooting occurred in an environment of systematic mistreatment of blacks, in which officials swapped racist emails and jokes without punishment and black residents were disproportionately stopped and searched, fined for petty offences and subjected to excessive police force.

A 102-page report about the department found that its lack of racial diversity — only four of 54 commissioned officers are black — undermined community trust. It also found that the city relied heavily on fines for petty offences, such as jaywalking, to raise revenue. Police interpreted "innocent movements as physical threats" and engaged in practices that overwhelmingly affected minorities and reinforced patterns of racial bias, it said.

The document was filled with examples of what it called a discriminatory criminal justice system. One black woman spent six days in jail because of a parking violation, it said. A lawful protest was broken up with a police warning of "everybody here's going to jail." And a black man sitting in a car with tinted windows was accused without cause of being a pedophile by an officer who pointed a gun at his head.

Between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were more than twice as likely as others to be searched during routine traffic stops, but 26 per cent less likely to be carrying contraband.

Racist jokes about Obama

The report also included seven racially tinged emails, including some from city officials who remain employed, that did not result in punishment. The writer of one 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be in office for long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on leaders of Ferguson to take "immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action" on the problems with the city's police that the Justice Department unearthed while investigating the shooting.

Holder, who will soon hand over the position of the country's top cop to Loretta Lynch, said the department would continue to work on reducing and eliminating racial bias within Ferguson's police force and elsewhere.

"Let me be clear: the United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change," Holder said in a speech about the department's findings.

The Justice Department issued more than two dozen recommendations to improve the closely aligned police department and court system, including training officers to de-escalate confrontations and better oversight of its recruiting, hiring and promotion procedures.

Federal officials on Wednesday described Ferguson city leaders as co-operative and open to change, and said there were already signs of improvement.

Similarly broad federal civil rights investigations of troubled police departments have led to the appointment of independent monitors and mandated overhauls in the most fundamental of police practices. The Justice Department maintains the right to sue a police department if officials balk at making changes, though many investigations resolve the issue with both sides negotiating a blueprint for change known as a consent decree.

Brown's killing set off weeks of protests and initiated a national dialogue about police use of force and their relations with minority communities.

The report is based on interviews with police leaders and residents, a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests.

With files from Reuters

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