According to CNN, the Department of Justice will sue Ferguson if it discovers that the city’s police department engages in race discrimination, and authorities refuse to make systemic changes. This is not the first time Attorney General Eric Holder used this tactic to force police departments to alter their standards of practice, and, if past is prologue, Holder’s mere threat may be sufficient to change police practices in Ferguson.
Ever since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown last August, Ferguson has experienced civil unrest, with citizens arguing that Wilson’s actions were racially-charged. However, protests surrounding the incident are about more than the death of an unarmed teenager: Brown’s death brought to light a history of racial tension and inequality in and around St. Louis. And just last week, 11 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that the pattern of jailing Ferguson residents who cannot pay off fees and traffic violations is actually an illegal use of debtors prisons.
Indeed, a simple look into Ferguson Police Department’s stops, searches, and arrests data reveals gross racial disparities. So in that sense, it would not be surprising if the DOJ found traces of systemic discrimination.
But this is also not the first time Holder has launched investigations into police departments and forced them to make substantive reforms. By the time he announced his plan to resign last September, he’d initiated 20 department probes across the country, from Miami to Portland. And after those investigations turned up patterns of misconduct, such as “police brutality, abuse of the mentally ill, and excessive deadly force,” those departments committed to making changes that lined up with DOJ recommendations.
After the DOJ concluded that Cleveland officers used absurd levels of violence against civilians, for instance, the city signed “the Justice Department and the city of Cleveland have signed a statement of principles committing them to develop a court enforceable consent decree that will include a requirement for an independent monitor who will oversee and ensure necessary reforms.” When the department found similar patterns of excessive force in Miami, the MPD agreed to be monitored by a federal judge.
So the DOJ may wind up suing Ferguson, but it is more likely that the city and its police department will agree to make recommended changes before that happens.