Conservatives Start to Take the Ferguson DOJ Report Seriously

Writers at National Review and Red State look closely at civil rights abuses by law enforcement.

Adrees Latif/Reuters

Last week, I criticized the conservative movement for its reaction to the DOJ report on Ferguson, Missouri, arguing that for various ideological and political reasons, its organs were failing to recognize civil-rights violations in urgent need of a remedy.

Where was the outrage?

Since then, there's been a small but notable improvement. In National Review, the coverage of which I singled out for criticism, Jason Lee Steorts, the managing editor, published an exceptional Friday blog post arguing that while many on the right dismiss the Ferguson report as spurious, "anyone who cares about protecting citizens from abusive and arbitrary officialdom" should be grateful that it exists, "whatever else he may think of Eric Holder’s tenure as attorney general."

Steorts lays out the DOJ's findings in detail and concludes by calling on conservatives to rethink how they react to credible reports of law enforcement abuses:

Conservatives fancy themselves zealous protectors of constitutional rights. They are suspicious of government power. They are hostile to bureaucratic corruption, however petty. And they oppose the confiscation of wealth without compelling reasons. The Ferguson report gives them much to object to in every one of these categories. It is remarkable that many on the right have instead dismissed the report without even reading it—as if psychologizing Eric Holder or cross-referencing generic arguments about disparate impact and crime rates obviated the need to reckon with the Justice Department’s specific findings. It seems to me that a kind of team-sport mentality has prevailed. Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal-justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen—all very rightly.
But from there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team. They duly boo. Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it.

A couple days later, Leon H. Wolf published a blog post at Red State titled, "Many Conservatives Are Blowing It on the Ferguson DOJ Report." As he sees it, interpreting the news out of Ferguson has become "a part of ideological tribalism,"  where conservatives "stand for the Ferguson PD" and "if you are a liberal you stand against them." Liberals have thus resisted the information that Michael Brown never put his hands above his head and said, "Don't shoot," while conservatives have resisted information suggesting that "the Ferguson PD —as with many other municipal police departments in the country—truly is out of control, in that it recklessly violates the constitutional rights of the citizens of Ferguson and does so in a manner that has a clearly disproportionate impact on minorities."

Wolf proceeds to do his own lengthy review of the DOJ report. His conclusion:

Even if you read only the parts of the Ferguson DOJ report that come directly from the files of the FPD (which is to say, files that would be most favorable to the Department), the report paints an incredibly damning picture of the Ferguson Police Department. No conservative on earth should feel comfortable with the way the Ferguson PD has been operating for years, even according to their own documents.

He goes on to hazard an explanation for why so many conservatives have reacted differently:

The reflexive defense of the FPD by conservatives tends to come from two sources: The first is the belief among many conservatives that Officer Darren Wilson was telling the truth and that the witnesses and friends of Michael Brown were lying—and thus by extension, the DOJ is perceived to be taking the “Michael Brown side” and therefore is not credible. However, this particular source of distrust makes no sense as the DOJ likewise did not charge Officer Wilson in connection with the Michael Brown shooting. Thus, insofar as the credibility of a person is judged by whether they believe the spurious “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, the DOJ comes down on the side of conservatives.

The second is the belief that the FPD was unfairly targeted by the DOJ as retribution for the fact that Officer Wilson was not indicted by the local authorities. Many conservatives I have spoken to are of the opinion that the FPD is no worse than any other police department and that they oppose the FPD being targeted simply because of the Michael Brown incident. I suppose this is probably true, but what I don’t understand is why that is seen as a feature, not a bug. The information I am going to describe below is appalling and breathtaking. If Ferguson is no worse than other cities, then why don’t we say that the problem is that all cities need to look very hard at fixing their municipal police departments, rather than that the Ferguson PD should be excused?

He goes on to write, "Anyone who can read the actual report itself and be comfortable with the fact that citizens of an American city live under such a regime is frankly not someone who is ideologically aligned with me in any meaningful way."

That is strong stuff for Red State. So is this:

I categorically reject and condemn the claim that this report or President Obama’s comments upon it led to the shooting of those two officers in Ferguson. Like everyone else, I deplore and condemn these acts of unjust violence.

But the fact that they occurred does not mean that the truth behind the report caused them. It is possible to condemn unjust and oppressive policing and also the unprovoked murder of police, and it is indicative of societal sickness caused by excessive partisanship that makes us unable to see that. We can do better than our response to the Ferguson DOJ report. And our country deserves better from us.

These writers deserve kudos for reading the Ferguson report and speaking up when they believed that their ideological allies weren't living up to ostensibly shared ideals. The conservative movement is stronger for their thoughtful dissents.

Update. Another National Review author, David French, weighs in:

We often take for granted the rule of law. If you are blessed to live in a town where the officials are relatively clean, or if you’re among the class of people that officials fear to cross, then public institutions seem benign — helpful, even. But there are millions of our fellow citizens who live a different reality, under the authority of different kinds of public officials — officials who view them as virtual ATMs, regardless of their ability to pay. And when the government imposes that mindset on police officers, forcing men and women who are trained to respond to (and anticipate) the most violent incidents to essentially become the armed tax collectors of a corrupt system, then that government is unjust, and its officials must be made to feel the bite of the Constitution that they’ve willfully and continually abused.