Ferguson has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Much has appropriately been made of the ridiculously racist emails the DOJ investigation turned up, as well as the preferential treatment meted out to friends and family while those who lacked connections were slapped with harsh sanctions and huge fines, ironically financing the very system that was sucking them dry.
But the story that the DOJ report tells is not only one of an egregiously racist system. It is also a story of an alarming scope of policing. I’ve never been a proponent of “small government,” but the sheer volume of outstanding charges, well described in this Huff Post Blog post, tells a dystopian story of an entire town under the thumb of a police force and prosecutor’s office – 16,000 of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents have outstanding charges against them; there were nearly 33,000 different warrants in 2013. Had the timing been different, the movement less well-organized, the inciting event less powerful, this kind of approach to “law and order” wouldn’t have come to light in Ferguson. In fact, even now it’s hardly receiving honorable mention as the media divides into two predictable camps and argues about whether the Ferguson PD is really all that racist, or whether they’re just indiscriminately terrible.
One thing that all police departments and prosecutors’ offices have in common when they engage in this kind of draconian law enforcement is this: they are acting entirely within the legal bounds of their discretion, and we are virtually powerless to stop them. In this case a social movement, the eyes of sympathetic media, and the influence of the Department of Justice may be enough to rein in Ferguson – at least for now. But as long as we exist in a society riddled with racism and classism, the kind of discretion and power afforded to police officers and prosecutors will permit problems to prosper silently. While we work on communicating the message that #blacklivesmatter, we should also be imposing reasonable limits and meaningful accountability on our police officers and prosecutors so that the kind of police state the DOJ found in Ferguson isn’t permitted to flourish unseen everywhere else.