Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A 6-month investigation into the Ferguson Police Department shows grave violations of constitutional and civil rights. But residents face even deeper problems.
In the summer of 2012, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, pulled up behind a parked car in which a 32-year-old black man was sitting. The man was chilling after playing some basketball. Without cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile. The officer subjected the man to a pat-down and asked to search the man's car. Citing his constitutional rights, the young black man refused. The officer arrested him—reportedly at gunpoint—and charged him with eight different violations. One of the charges was for giving his name as "Mike" instead of "Michael": making a false declaration. Another charge was for not wearing a seatbelt. While sitting in his parked car.
The case is highlighted on page three of the report released today by the U.S. Department of Justice outlining the findings of its six-month investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. The 99 pages that follow are not short on examples of grave violations of Ferguson residents' constitutional and civil rights.
While the investigation's findings may not be news to black residents of St. Louis, the details are harrowing. Justice officials conclude that police in Ferguson loosed police dogs on black residents exclusively, for example, as BuzzFeed's Adam Serwer notes. In light of these findings, Justice officials recommend a broad range of reforms in Ferguson. Yet the investigation's conclusions seem to miss the forest for the trees.
Ferguson is just one of 89 municipalities that make up St. Louis County. According to Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to poor residents in St. Louis, Ferguson is hardly alone in experiencing these problems. In fact, the problems stem in part from the way the many cities and single county operate vis-à-vis one another.
"The density of the municipalities is such that it is possible to drive through eight separate cities in less than four miles on a stretch of Natural Bridge Road from Bel-Ridge to Pine Lawn," reads a white paper produced by Arch City Defenders. "Each has its own municipal code, its own police force, and its own court. Eighty-one municipalities have their own court to enforce their municipal codes across their slivers of St. Louis County."
The report from the Department of Justice recommends 13 different courses of action for the Ferguson Police Department, from stringent supervision of Ferguson officers' stop, search, ticketing, and arrest practices to in-depth training in constitutional restrictions on policing. The report adds another 13 reforms for Ferguson's municipal-court system, whose abysmal practices contribute to despair among Ferguson's most vulnerable.
Yet even if Ferguson police and courts adopted every recommendation from Justice—even if Ferguson Police Department chief Tom Jackson assented to residents' renewed demands for his resignation—Ferguson would still suffer from a severe representational disparity between black residents and white leaders. The city's black population, at 67 percent, is much more heavily minority than the St. Louis County or even St. Louis City. Ferguson's local government, on the other hand, is almost wholly white.
Solving the representational gap in Ferguson may be beyond Ferguson's purview. More broadly, outcomes for black residents across St. Louis are far worse than for white residents. Repairing these outcomes in the dozens of cities that make up St. Louis County—in terms of health, wealth, employment, educational attainment, and other factors—is definitely beyond the purview of Ferguson.
According to the white paper from Arch City Defenders, three municipal courts are especially bad offenders within St. Louis County when it comes to violating the rights of the poor (and in particular poor minorities). These three courts are based in Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson. So the recommendations from Justice may very well be the place to start in order to dramatically improve outcomes for some of the worst-off and hardest-hit residents of the area.
Improving outcomes for all black residents in St. Louis will take broader thinking. Undoing the Great Divorce between St. Louis City and St. Louis County is the place to start.