WASHINGTON — Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in August because he feared for his life after Brown first tried to grab his gun and then came toward him in a threatening manner, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released Wednesday.
“Given that Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and that his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other eyewitnesses . . . there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat,” officials concluded in the 87-page report. The review explained why the Justice Department will not pursue civil rights charges against Wilson for the fatal shooting.
A second scathing 102-page report, also released Wednesday, highlighted widespread racial bias by the 72-member Ferguson police department and described a system of using law enforcement to extract money from African American residents, a practice Attorney General Eric Holder called “revenue generation through policing.”
The investigation found that Ferguson officers competed to see who could issue the largest number of citations during a single stop, and in one instance, that total rose to 14. Even minor code violations sometimes resulted in multiple arrests, jail time and payments that far exceeded the cost of the original ticket.
“Seen in this context, amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said Wednesday, in one of his last speeches before he steps down.
Justice officials personally met with Brown’s parents Wednesday morning to notify them of the department’s findings.
“Today we received disappointing news from the Department of Justice that the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions,” Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. said in a statement. “While we are saddened by this decision, we are encouraged that the DOJ will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color.”
Justice Department officials said they would have had to prove that Wilson used unreasonable force against Brown and that he did so “willfully,” knowing that it was against the law to do so. Instead, after a seven-month review, investigators found that Wilson’s shooting of Brown did “not constitute a prosecutable violation.”
A grand jury in St. Louis had declined to indict Wilson in November.
Justice Department investigators came to their conclusion after canvassing more than 300 homes and reviewing physical, ballistic, forensic, medical and crime-scene evidence. They also examined Wilson’s personnel records, audio and video recordings and the transcripts from the proceedings before the St. Louis County grand jury.
“The promise I made when I went to Ferguson and at the time that we launched our investigation was not that we would arrive at a particular outcome, but rather that we would pursue the facts, wherever they led,” Holder said.
Holder said he understood why some would wonder how the department’s findings could differ so sharply from the initial accounts of what happened in Ferguson. But he said the discrepancy was due, in part, to a deeply rooted pattern of racial bias in the police department that had left the Ferguson community polarized.
“A community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African-American residents,” Holder said.
Justice officials met with Ferguson city officials Tuesday, including the mayor and the police chief, to discuss their findings in what one Justice official called “a difficult conversation.” The Justice Department made 26 recommendations for the Ferguson police department and municipal court, including a “robust system of true community policing” and new hiring practices to recruit minority officers.
“It is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action,” Holder said. “Let me be clear: The United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change.”
The majority of law enforcement agencies that have been investigated by the department’s civil rights division have entered into voluntary agreements to implement recommended changes. But if that doesn’t happen, the department can bring a lawsuit, as it has done against several cities.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, a Republican, said at a news conference Wednesday night that his police department is determined to address racial discrimination charges. “We must do better, not only as a city, but as a state and a country,” he said.
Justice officials also released seven racist emails written by Ferguson police and municipal court officials that they said indicated “intentional discrimination.”
A November 2008 email, for instance, stated that President Barack Obama could not be president for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another email described Obama as a chimpanzee. An email from 2011 showed a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women apparently in Africa with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” Another joked that a black woman would help stop crime because she got an abortion.
Justice officials did not specifically identify who wrote the emails and to whom they were sent but said they were written by police and court supervisors.
Knowles said that three police supervisors who were found to have sent racist emails will be fully investigated and that one has already been fired.
“Let me be clear, this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson police department or in any department in the city of Ferguson,” Knowles said. “These actions taken by these individuals are in no way representative of the employees of the city of Ferguson.”
In hundreds of interviews and in a wide-ranging review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and other documents, Justice Department officials found that although African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population in Ferguson, they accounted for 93 percent of all arrests between 2012 and 2014. The Ferguson police also overwhelmingly employed force against African-Americans, including the use of dogs in police actions.
As part of its findings, the Justice Department concluded that African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of all drivers stopped by Ferguson police officers and 90 percent of all citations issued.
In one case, a woman received two parking tickets that totaled $152. But she has paid $550 to date in fines and fees to the city . She has been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets, spent six days in jail and still owes Ferguson $541.
In an example of what Holder called “routine” constitutional violations, a Ferguson officer arrested a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car resting after a basketball game. With no apparent justification, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, wouldn’t let him use his phone and ordered him out of his car for a pat-down. When the man objected, the officer drew his gun, pointed it at the man’s head and arrested him on eight different counts.
Washington Post staff writers Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.
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