Pursuing Change

The Justice Department sues Ferguson.

The Justice Department Sues Ferguson

A year and a half after the death of Michael Brown, the U.S. Department of Justice is suing Ferguson, Missouri over an agreement on police reform. The death of the unarmed black teenager, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, sparked a national movement against police brutality and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. After Brown’s death, the Justice Department investigated the Ferguson Police Department and found serious problems, including a troubling pattern of racial bias that could be explained by unlawful bias and prejudice against African Americans.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department and city negotiators reached a tentative agreement on police reforms. The original agreement was broad and called on Ferguson to equip officers with body cameras, change its policies to emphasize de-escalation, adopt a community policing approach, and overhaul its municipal court system. But the Ferguson City Council went back on pieces of the original agreement, citing a high cost of implementation. The city’s changes to the reform agreement led the Justice Department to file a lawsuit to try to force the original agreement, leaving Ferguson with the choice of agreeing to the original reforms or facing a lengthy legal battle.

The shooting of Michael Brown and other high-profile incidents like the killing of Samuel DuBose, who was shot in the head after being pulled over for driving without tags, and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, have shed light on a national problem of police brutality, particularly against African Americans. But the depth of the problem goes even further than the highly visible tragedies. Last year nearly 600 people were shot and killed by police, and black men represented 40 percent of all unarmed deaths. The disproportionate impact of police brutality on the African American community is mirrored in our criminal justice system: African Americans make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but 60 percent of those imprisoned.

The success of the Black Lives Matter movement has helped bring the issue into the national political conversation. The movement has led to legislation working through Congress and a Black Lives Matter activist is running for mayor of Baltimore. Deep grassroots movement and high profile conversations about racial bias and police reform are important steps in making meaningful change, but more action can be taken to address the problems in our current criminal justice system.

Our colleagues at the Center for American Progress have made recommendations for things we can do to reform the criminal justice system, including improved police training; data collection and accountability; repairing police-community trust; the promise of an independent and thorough investigation in instances where lives are taken; and removing barriers to opportunity for people with criminal records. For more on CAP’s recommendations read this report.

BOTTOM LINE: A year and a half after Michael Brown’s death, the reality of racial injustice and police conduct in our country is being discussed in a meaningful way. The Justice Department’s lawsuit against the Ferguson Police Department shows commitment to take police reforms seriously. But there is still work to be done to ensure that the systemic challenges our country faces are addressed.

Like CAP Action on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.