On Ferguson, A Stark Choice: Real Reform or Petty Politics

03/05/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Over the last six years, it has become de rigueur for pundits and prognosticators to read questionable motives -- most often racial or political -- into nearly every decision taken by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The fact that this comes with the territory, given the Justice Department's unique mission and mandate, makes it no less an exercise in futility. As I wrote last week, throughout Holder's eventful tenure -- both publicly and behind closed doors -- the attorney general has been rigorous in maintaining his department's independence, at times to the consternation of political types on both sides of the aisle.

This is as it should be. On nearly all matters, the Justice Department's involvement in politics is rigidly proscribed -- something that certain of Holder's predecessors have forgotten or neglected only at great peril. As a result, even in the face of staunch criticism, the attorney general has consistently exhibited a healthy disdain for political considerations, particularly in the law enforcement context.

Unsurprisingly, this has seldom prevented Holder's most strident critics from ascribing dubious motivations to his every move. This week's hotly-anticipated announcements -- regarding pervasive racial discrimination by the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and the declination of federal civil rights charges against Officer Darren Wilson -- proved no exception.

Whatever one's politics, the findings of the Justice Department's "pattern or practice" investigation into the Ferguson Police Department -- as laid out by seasoned, career attorneys and investigators in the Civil Rights Division -- are indisputable, unambiguous and frankly damning. These findings, which Holder himself described as "searing," paint a startling portrait of a system that is profoundly broken, an abusive police force that appears to be driven more by profit than by public safety, and a populace that is regularly preyed upon -- rather than protected -- by local authorities.

Most disturbingly, of course, the report also makes clear -- in vivid anecdotes and appalling statistics -- that routine constitutional violations, ranging from unwarranted stops and searches to excessive uses of force, have overwhelmingly been directed at Ferguson's African-American residents. Per USA Today:

African Americans account for 67% of the population in Ferguson, but they accounted for 85% of the drivers stopped by police, 90% of the people issued tickets and 93% of the people arrested, a three-year examination of suspect stops found. When those cases reached the Municipal Court, authorities collected more fines for suspects' failure to appear than any other charge, mostly from the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents.

African Americans were more than twice as likely than white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops, but 26% less likely to have contraband, the review found.

The Ferguson Police Department often charged its black residents with petty crimes. African Americans accounted for 95% of the people charged with walking in the street and 92% of people charged with disturbing the peace.

In this poisonous atmosphere, as Holder suggested, it is not hard to imagine how a seemingly-routine interaction between a young black man -- perhaps feeling the weight of years of systemic discrimination -- and a lone officer, whose difficult job had been made immeasurably more dangerous by mounting hostility, might escalate into a fatal confrontation. This context also explains the explosive community response to the shooting death of Michael Brown last August -- a tragedy, magnified by pent-up frustration, that played into a well-established (and now thoroughly substantiated) narrative about how African Americans are treated at the hands of the Ferguson Police.

Of course, these findings should not be construed as condemnatory of law enforcement writ large (despite nagging allegations to the contrary, Holder's record of support for local police has in fact been exemplary, and he has been full-throated in his praise for law enforcement throughout his tenure). But sadly -- if predictably -- public reactions to the Justice Department's investigations in Ferguson have generally broken down along political lines. And the usual prognostications began long before the facts of these investigations, let alone their outcomes, were publicly known.

In one particularly egregious example, reflexive Holder critic and Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin David Clarke took to the airwaves early this week to urge Ferguson city officials to fight the "outrageous" Justice Department report, characterizing the inquiry as an "abuse of power" on the part of the attorney general. At the time, the report had not yet been released; Sheriff Clarke could not possibly have known with anything approaching certainty what evidence it might contain (after the announcement, he did not hesitate to double down).

That we should expect better from Clarke, as an ostensibly fair-minded officer of the law, is beyond question. Irresponsible and uninformed speculation does not become those in positions of authority. And such unfortunate and invective-laced statements illustrate precisely why politics must be avoided at all costs if this inarguably tragic state of affairs is to meet with a constructive resolution.

The Justice Department's findings demand a thorough accounting. The people and police officers of Ferguson can ill afford to allow the difficult but necessary reform process that's now underway to be subsumed by petty politics.

To plunge headlong into a dialogue defined by the same narrow, reductive, zero-sum talking points that frame so much of our national debate -- in other words, to continue this descent into political quicksand -- would be an inexcusable mistake. There are no "winners" or "losers," political or otherwise, in either of the cases at issue. To pretend otherwise is to trivialize the very real harms that have been visited on the people of Ferguson - and the very real risks that brave law enforcement officers throughout the nation are asked to confront on a regular basis.

Now that the facts are known, there is no room to deny the unbearably hard truths that the Justice Department's investigations have exposed. The question, instead, is what can and should be done about them.

As the attorney general has repeatedly said, this is about the interests and the safety of police officers as well as protestors. It is long past time for responsible actors to follow Holder's lead in rejecting political posturing in favor of constructive, inclusive, and fact-based dialogue.