Federal civil rights head calls Ferguson ruling ‘game changer’

The acting head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told a conference of law enforcement leaders in San Francisco¬†Wednesday¬†that the agency’s report on illegal police conduct in Ferguson, Mo., should serve as a “game changer” in police-community relations.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said:

“I think the report really is a game changer.”

Gupta said she has heard from many police chiefs around the country since the March 2 release of the severely critical report by her division:

“This is about changing systems and changing a culture in the community, in the police department, so that we can have sustainable reform and rebuild trust.”

Gupta spoke at a noontime panel before about 170 Bay Area police chiefs, district attorneys, sheriffs and their top command staff at a conference entitled Police Legitimacy/Procedural Justice, convened by Northern California U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.

Haag said the conference had been planned since last summer, but became even more timely after the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July, the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August, and the shooting deaths of two police officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., in December.

Gupta was invited by Haag to talk about the civil rights investigation of Ferguson and a second report in which the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson for civil rights violations in Brown’s death.

Gupta told the group the department did not find evidence that Wilson, who is white, willfully violated the civil rights of Brown, an African-American. But she said the broader civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found “a highly toxic environment defined by mistrust, resentment and misguided police practices”:

“Our investigation found the community deeply polarized and found that unlawful practices severely undermined public trust and created an atmosphere where people felt under siege.”

The report found that Ferguson police conducted illegal stops and arrests, used unreasonable force and were biased against African-Americans. It also found that both police and the city’s Municipal Court focussed on revenue rather than public safety and used unfair traffic stops, arrests and fines to gain income for the city.

Gupta said she is optimistic the problems in Ferguson can be fixed and said the department is working with city officials to carry out reforms. Since the report was issued last week, the city’s Municipal Court judge, Municipal Court clerk and two police supervisors have resigned or been fired, Gupta noted.

The city manager resigned on Tuesday and the police chief resigned today. Gupta said she has been asked whether the situation in Ferguson was an anomaly:

“Many jurisdictions around the country are dealing with the same issues of racial disparity.”

Panelists Ronald Davis of the Justice Department, Assistant Oakland Police Chief Paul Figueroa and Tucson,Ariz., Police Chief Roberto Villasenor also called for a rebuilding of community trust.

Davis, who was East Palo Alto police chief for eight years and previously served 20 years with the Oakland Police Department, was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 to head the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Davis and Villasenor both noted that while statistics show the crime rate has decreased in the past decade, public trust in police is not increasing. Davis told the group:

“Public safety is not just the reduction of crime but also the presence of justice. … We have a defining moment for law enforcement and communities to address the issues.”

Figueroa said:

“It’s our job as policy makers and commanders to have practices and policies in place that set (police officers) up to succeed.”

The panelists said that even when police departments have good practices, public trust in them can be affected by reports of unfair or biased conduct by police in other jurisdictions. Villasenor said:

“We are all held responsible for what each one does.”