Ferguson, Missouri, police fostered a "highly toxic environment" of racism and misconduct that turned the city into a "powder keg" that was ready to explode after the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown last year, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday — even though the officer who shot Brown was determined to have committed no crime.
In a lengthy explanation of the Justice Department's two investigations in Ferguson — of police in general and of former Officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Brown in August specifically — Holder agreed with a local grand jury that declined to indict Wilson, stressing that "the facts do not support the filing of criminal charges."
"Michael Brown's death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson," Holder said.
A visibly disturbed Holder said "it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson," which he described as "defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings and spurred by illegal and misguided practices."
Those illegal practices included constitutional violations and excessive and dangerous use of force disproportionately targeted against African Americans, Holder said.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who was widely criticized by activists and critics of local law enforcement, told reporters later, "I don't feel any need to be vindicated," saying it was Wilson who was vindicated by the physical evidence and the consistency of witnesses' statements.
"Those who say that, well, charges should be filed just so we can have a trial — we don't operate that way in this country," McCulloch said.
McCulloch said he had not had a chance to read the second report, documenting misconduct by Ferguson police. But "we've all got a long way to go to restore and to build that trust in the community."
In his remarks, Holder said the systemic problems in Ferguson went far beyond just the police department. A trove of work emails from not only police but also other city officials revealed "racist comments or gender discrimination, demonstrating grotesque views and images of African Americans in which they were seen as the 'other,' called 'transient' by public officials and characterized as lacking personal responsibility," he said.
The Justice Department report further denounced the emails as unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing and demonstrative of impermissible bias." It found that none of the officers or court clerk employees who wrote them was ever disciplined. Senior Justice Department officials said some of them, in fact, were still employed by Ferguson.
Mayor James Knowles said later Wednesday that one police employee had been fired and two others were on administrative pending an investigation of the emails, which included:
- A November 2008 email stating that President Barack Obama would not be president for long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years?"
- A March 2010 email mocking African-Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. "I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment!" one read. "Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!"
- An April 2011 email depicting Obama as a chimpanzee.
- A May 2011 email stating: "An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, 'Crimestoppers.'"
- A June 2011 email describing a man seeking to obtain "welfare" for his dogs because they are "mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are."
- An October 2011 email including a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, "Michelle Obama's High School Reunion."
- A December 2011 email including jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.
Holder said the flagrant bias was coupled with determination to squeeze every possible penny out of overzealous enforcement of minor violations — "to use law enforcement not as a public service, but as a tool for raising revenue."
Holder said the Justice Department found that the unconstitutional practices extended to nearly every level of Ferguson's law enforcement system. Ferguson police issued nearly 50 percent more citations in the last year than they did in 2010, even though there was no rise in crime, he said.
Ferguson officers routinely charge multiple violations for the same conduct, competing to see who can issue the most citations during a single stop. In one particularly egregious example, he cited the case of a woman For example, who received two parking tickets in 20078 that totaled $152. But so far, she has paid $550 in fines and fees, has been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets and has spent six days in jail — and "yet she still inexplicably owes Ferguson $541," he said.
From October 2012 to July 2014, African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of all charges brought by Ferguson police, and they made up more than 90 percent of those charged with highly discretionary offenses like "manner of walking along roadway," Holder said. In every case in which records recorded the race of a person bitten by a police dog, the subject was African-American.
The fallout is an "unsustainable situation that has not only severely damaged relationships between law enforcement and members of the community but [has] made professional policing vastly more difficult — and unnecessarily placed officers at increased risk," he said.
The Justice Department called on the Ferguson police and courts to immediately start tracking, and analyzing police stops, searches and arrests practices; involve civilians in police decision-making; and develop effective procedures to respond to allegations of officer misconduct. And it said the use of arrest warrants to collect fines and fees should cease.
Holder said that the Justice Department "reserves all of its rights" to force change in Ferguson, suggesting a federal lawsuit could be in the future.
"It is time for Ferguson's leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action," he said.
In a statement, Brown's parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., said they were disappointed that Wilson would not be "held accountable for his actions." But they said they were "encouraged that the DOJ will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color."
"If that change happens, our son's death will not have been in vain," they said.
Joel Seidman of NBC News contributed to this report.