The announcement that the Justice Department will conduct a civil-rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department comes nearly a month after Michael Brown's death first raised doubts about the suburban law-enforcement agency.
The announcement that the Justice Department will conduct a civil-rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department comes nearly a month after Michael Brown’s death first raised doubts about the suburban law-enforcement agency.
Many Ferguson residents say the intervention is long overdue, citing long-held suspicions about racial profiling and police brutality. Their complaints are shared by others in the predominantly black inner suburbs of St. Louis known collectively as North County, where people describe routine harassment by officers working for a jumble of tiny city and village police forces, some of which patrol neighborhoods with only a few hundred residents.
Here’s a closer look at Ferguson, its neighbors and small-town police work in the shadow of a major Midwest city:
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OUTSIDERS IN UNIFORM: Nearly 70 percent of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are black. Among its 53 police officers, just three are black. And few officers live within the city limits, which critics say makes them less vested in the community they serve. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, lives 20 miles away in the suburb called Crestwood. Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Mayor James Knowles have pledged to improve minority recruitment and hiring efforts. But both of them acknowledged the difficulty of finding qualified applicants of color and keeping those hires from leaving for better-paying jobs in bigger departments.
THE POLICE CHIEF: Much of the outrage in Ferguson has been directed toward Jackson, who spent more than 30 years in the St. Louis County Police Department before taking over the municipal force four years ago. Jackson waited nearly a week to release Wilson’s name after first vowing to do so sooner and then suggesting the officer’s identity might not be disclosed at all. He further angered Brown’s family and many others by simultaneously releasing video surveillance footage purporting to show Brown shoving a convenience store clerk after robbing the business of a box of cigars.
ALLEGATIONS OF EXCESSIVE FORCE: Several Ferguson officers other than Wilson are targets of civil rights lawsuits filed by plaintiffs alleging excessive force. One case involves the family of a 31-year-old-man who ran naked down the street and then died of a heart attack in 2011 after being repeatedly shocked by a Ferguson officer’s stun gun.
Another lawsuit against three Ferguson officers — including one of the two defendants in the stun-gun incident — alleges that a 54-year-old man was charged with destruction of government property for bleeding on the officer’s uniforms after he was hurt during his arrest. The defendants include a former Ferguson officer who now serves on the City Council.
A Ferguson officer named as a defendant in a federal civil-rights complaint filed by five Ferguson protesters after Brown’s death is also accused in another federal case of choking a 12-year-old who was checking for mail outside his family’s home south of St. Louis.
ACTIONS IN THE STREETS: After several nights of violent protests that included looting and arson, police began doing crowd control in riot gear and armored vehicles and sometimes pointed weapons at protesters. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has defended those tactics, saying that most officers acted with restraint while being targeted with bottles, Molotov cocktails and guns. But three officers who assisted with Ferguson security have resigned or been fired for their actions, including a St. Ann lieutenant who pointed his gun at demonstrators while threatening to kill a protester and a Glendale officer who suggested in a Facebook post that Ferguson protesters should be “put down like rabid dogs.”
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier .