One of the effects of racial segregation is that it fractures reality, so that the daily occurrences of one world can be entirely invisible, even fantastic, to another. When the town of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protest during the summer of 2014, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, millions of Americans were shocked, both at the ferocity of the demonstrations, and the brutal, militaristic response of local police.
To many white Americans, the world Ferguson residents described to reporters must have seemed preposterous––a violent klepto-state where black residents were bled dry by the municipal government and frequently abused and treated with contempt by an unaccountable police force. In turn, Ferguson’s black residents radiated frustration with a country that seemed in disbelief about what they had seen, heard, felt, and very literally paid for in more ways than one.
In March 2015, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department published the results of a months-long investigation into Ferguson, uncovering a municipal government that saw the criminalization of its own residents as a source of revenue, with city officials even directing police to produce increases in court fees for infractions like “manner of walking in roadway” and “failure to comply.” The report described how the municipal government saw the town’s black residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” and the police force itself as a kind of armed “collection agency.”
Among the crucial contributions of the report was documenting a little acknowledged fact of life for the modern American poor: Any encounter with law enforcement can set in motion a series of events that can devastate the already precarious livelihoods of those with meager resources, something you are far more likely to experience if you are black.
The federal government’s authority to investigate and oversee reforms in local police departments comes from a law passed in the aftermath of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers, and their subsequent acquittal, despite video evidence showing cops striking a dazed and helpless King repeatedly with batons. Then as now, many viewers were shocked by a vivid representation of police brutality faced by black Americans, while others refused to see any problem worth addressing at all.
The purpose of that law was to address systemic problems in police departments that could lead to such incidents, by giving the federal government the power to investigate local authorities for systemic problems, then enter into court-enforced agreements known as “consent decrees” to compel changes if necessary. On March 31, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was cynically sold by his defenders as a champion of civil rights, ordered a review of the Justice Department’s approach to policing, asserting that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said federal investigations of police departments were bad for “morale,” and waved away the idea that police abuses could be systemic, rather than the actions of a few bad apples.
As attorney general, Sessions said he read a summary, but not the full Ferguson report, which found that “95% of Manner of Walking charges; 94% of all Fail to Comply charges; 92% of all Resisting Arrest charges; 92% of all Peace Disturbance charges; and 89% of all Failure to Obey charges” were filed against black residents. But on the basis of the summary alone, Sessions concluded that the report was “pretty anecdotal” and “not scientifically based.”
The refusal to believe police abuse could be systemic rather than individual is, in the aftermath of all the data collected by the very agency Sessions now leads, a form of denial. Nor can Sessions’s decision be justified by the familiar excuse that police reforms lead to higher crime rates—the notion that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is a normative standard that would eschew federal oversight of local police regardless of the crime rate or the gravity of any abuse that might occur.
The Obama-era Justice Department’s report on Ferguson did more than simply outline the abuses of a local government and its police force—it served as a crucial and near-unimpeachable witness to the abuse of black Americans by entities meant to protect and represent them. Ferguson was hardly the only city where such dynamics persisted as a haunting echo of Jim Crow—in big cities all over the country, black Americans daily confront both the painful consequences of street crime and the terrifying possibility of violence at the hands of agents of the state sworn to protect them.
Until Ferguson, that reality, fractured and hidden from many white Americans, was for the most part safely buried under a false narrative of unimpeded racial progress. Far from heralding the beginning of a post-racial America, the Obama-era civil-rights division helped uncover how America’s balkanization had limited both progress and recognition of ongoing racial inequality. It helped compel the country to reconcile its fractured realities.
In Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died of a near-severed spinal cord after a ride in a police van, the Justice Department found that the police “deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities.” The BPD rarely investigated uses of force: It examined 10 out of 2,818 in the six-year period reviewed by the department, and only found one to be excessive. It found that officers violated the First Amendment by “frequently” detaining or arresting “members of the public for engaging in speech the officers perceive to be critical or disrespectful.”
In Chicago, where Laquan McDonald was gunned down by a police officer who emptied his weapon as McDonald lay on the ground, the Justice Department found a police department indifferent to the use of racial epithets by its officers and uninterested in investigating uses of force, even when done in violation of the department’s own guidelines. The report concluded that “CPD has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force.” Officers who engaged in misconduct often remained cops “when they should have been relieved of duty.”
Court-supervised reforms of police departments in those cities are now in peril.
Too often, the only power capable of compelling police departments to engage in widespread, systemic reforms is the federal government. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is an expression of conservative ideology; it is also an abdication of a responsibility only the federal government can meet. It is ignoring a crime by refusing to collect the evidence.
Sessions’s memo reads as an announcement that it is no longer the business of the federal government if American citizens’ rights are violated by those sworn to protect them and empowered with lethal force to do so. When local governments violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, Americans are supposed to be able to look to the federal government to protect those rights. Sessions has made clear that when it comes to police abuses, they’re now on their own. This is the principle at the heart of “law and order” rhetoric: The authorities themselves are bound by neither.
Among the most profound accomplishments of the Justice Department’s reports were the simple documentation and official acknowledgment of the lived realities of millions of ordinary Americans. By pulling back now, it begins to redraw the barriers between worlds that were briefly shattered by the protests of the past few years. It does not ensure that there will be no more victims of systemic police abuse, only that other Americans are less likely to hear them.