“They think they’re above the law,” replied 53-year-old Diane, who was out marching on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri last Monday afternoon, when I asked her about police-community relations. “The people fear the police because when they’re supposed to help you, they attack you.”
It’s clear that what’s happened in Ferguson in the last two weeks is not only about Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American shot and killed by a police officer on August 9. Nor is it entirely about the Ferguson Police Department. The frustrations I heard from black residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas regarding how they’re treated by police – from the lack of respect with which some officers treat them, to the greater likelihood of their being stopped by officers than whites, to the perception that police officers seem to place little value on the lives of black people (one woman I spoke to compared the Michael Brown case to that of a white robbery suspect the previous week who, despite injuring police in a struggle, was arrested without police firing any shots) – are familiar ones throughout the United States. Many of these concerns are backed up by data about racial disparities in the US criminal justice system.
The problems are compounded by the difficulty of holding police officers accountable in cases of brutality. While data on these cases is hard to come by, examples abound where police appear to have engaged in excessive use of force causing death or injury, yet avoided criminal charges or even disciplinary sanctions.
International human rights standards applicable to the United States require that victims have “accessible and effective remedies” to vindicate their rights. But the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas have few avenues through which to seek recourse when police commit abuses. Ferguson does not have an independent citizen complaint review board, one of the main mechanisms in other parts of the country for the disciplinary investigation of police misconduct. The Ferguson Police Department’s internal affairs complaint procedures – which might offer another route to report misconduct – are not made readily available to the public.
Of the dozens of people I spoke to while in Ferguson, nobody knew how to file a complaint against an officer. At a community meeting in a Florissant elementary school on Tuesday night, I talked to two criminal lawyers, neither of whom could tell me what the grievance procedure was for a person who wanted to file a complaint against an officer. I asked two other defense lawyers later that night whether there was procedure for filing complaints against officers, and they both chuckled. Indeed, the Ferguson Police Department website contains no information on grievance procedures for filing complaints against officers, and when I called the department to inquire, I was referred to a public relations firm, Commonground PR. Calls to the firm went to voicemail.
While victims of police abuse would in theory have recourse to a civil lawsuit, there are reasons to think that’s not always an option for people in in the St. Louis area. Thomas Hardy, executive director of Arch City Defenders, a legal services provider in the St. Louis area, told me that in many instances in which his office’s clients are charged with resisting arrest, assault on a law enforcement officer, or interfering with public administration, there is evidence that they were beaten up by police. Prosecutors will often offer to dismiss these cases, but only if the defendant agrees to waive any future civil lawsuits against the municipality.
When people see police engaging in misconduct with no consequences, that only increases their mistrust and fear of police. Nobody should be above the law, including police. While there is no substitute for effective criminal investigations and prosecutions, Ferguson and other communities could take a step in the right direction by establishing clear, transparent mechanisms for accountability, such as independent and effective review boards. Such mechanisms could go a long way towards protecting human rights and beginning to close the rift between communities and those who police them.