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Justice Dept. report details police violations in Ferguson

WASHINGTON — Ferguson, Mo., is one-third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets, and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

The racial disparity in those statistics was so stark that the Justice Department has concluded in a report scheduled for release Wednesday that there was only one explanation: The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.

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The report, based on a six-month investigation, provides a glimpse into the roots of the racial tensions that boiled over in Ferguson last summer after a black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white police officer, making it a worldwide flashpoint in the debate over race and policing in America. It describes a city where the police used force almost exclusively on blacks and regularly stopped people without probable cause. Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government e-mail accounts.

In a November 2008 e-mail, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another e-mail included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.

“There are serious problems here that cannot be explained away,” said a law enforcement official who has seen the report.

Those findings reinforce what the city’s black residents have been saying since the shooting: that the criminal justice system in Ferguson works differently for blacks and whites. A black motorist who is pulled over is twice as likely to be searched as a white motorist, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband, the report found.

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Minor, largely discretionary offenses such as disturbing the peace and jaywalking were brought almost exclusively against blacks. When whites were charged with these crimes, they were 68 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed, the Justice Department found.

“I’ve known it all my life about living out here,” Angel Goree, 39, who lives in the apartment complex where Brown was killed, said Tuesday by phone.

Many such statistics surfaced in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting, but the Justice Department report offers a more complete look at the data than ever before. Federal investigators conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed 35,000 pages of police records, and analyzed race data compiled for every police stop.

The report will probably force Ferguson officials to either negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department or face being sued by it on charges of violating the Constitution. Under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department has opened more than 20 such investigations into local police departments.

It is not clear what changes Ferguson could make that would head off a Justice Department lawsuit.

The report calls for city officials to acknowledge that the Police Department’s tactics have caused widespread mistrust and violated civil rights. Ferguson officials have so far been reluctant to do so.