DOJ report calls for transparency in Ferguson criminal justice system

by and
file folders filled with paper

The results of an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which was spurred by the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., has rocked the way the criminal justice system in the small town will work.

A week after the report was released, the Missouri Supreme Court has assigned a state appeals court judge to oversee all municipal cases coming out of Ferguson. The DOJ’s findings affirmed the distrust many of the city’s residents expressed having of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) through days of protests and intense standoffs with the police following Brown’s death and it unveiled issues of data quality and transparency throughout all three branches of the municipal criminal justice system: the police department, the municipal court and the local jail.

Currently, the Sunlight Foundation is in the process of creating an inventory of publicly and privately produced criminal justice data, a sizable portion of which mirrors the types of data mentioned in the report. The process has reinforced our belief that open criminal justice data is integral to transparency and accountability throughout the system, a sentiment the DOJ’s report loudly echoed.

The DOJ found that Ferguson’s municipal government collects data poorly in all parts of its criminal justice system. This lack of data was particularly striking within the FPD, which, according to the report, “collects no reliable or consistent data regarding pedestrian stops, even though it has technology to do so,” and that “as a result of these deficient practices, stops, arrests, and uses of force that violate the law or FPD policy are rarely detected and often ignored when they are discovered.”

The report also highlights hurdles to improving transparency — some internal practices are in such disarray that they would first have to be corrected before information could be clearly and effectively related to the public. For instance, the DOJ’s report singles out the city’s bond procedures as erratic and time consuming. Warrants are kept, archaically, in drawers that officers have to dig through to find them — often times coming up empty. Even bond payments are a “daily problem,” as documents describe officers finding hundred-dollar bills in their pockets and not remembering which jail detainee provided them.

Despite the accuracy and reporting flaws in Ferguson’s data, the report also highlights the importance of the city’s already existent data. The available data give the DOJ a platform for analysis of Ferguson’s mismanagement and the ability to provide recommendations for better practices in the future. For example, data on jail bookings were only available as of April 2014, giving the agency six months of viable jail data to analyze. But even just these six months of viable data proved valuable in discovering that the jail had detained multiple people over the 72-hour limit.

The report revealed that the city not only fails to collect data, but that it also clouds its policies, making adherence to its municipal code difficult. This lack of transparency is so problematic, it seemingly punishes those working within the confines of the system. The report notes:

The court’s procedures and operations are ambiguous, are not written down, and are not transparent or even available to the public on the court’s website or elsewhere.

Further, Ferguson, unlike other courts in the region, does not include any information about its operations on its website other than inaccurate instructions about how to make payment.

By shrouding public access to vital court information in inaccuracies and a lack of relevant resources, the municipal court makes navigating the legal system nearly impossible without a lawyer. “This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements,” the report continues.

Furthermore, the municipal court is closely intertwined with the police department — the court has virtually no autonomy and reports to the Ferguson chief of police, rooting its many issues in an administration that has no motivation to solve them. As such, the court has little incentive to “act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct.” This closeness is problematic because it compounds the already challenging process of using the court as a means of achieving justice, especially when it “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.”

The DOJ was still able to glean a lot of information from the data provided to them in spite of the data’s many issues. However, these data was often incomplete or inaccurate, and throughout the report, the DOJ emphasized not only data collection, but good data collection. If more regular access to more reliable data were provided, we would have an even greater understanding of law enforcement in Ferguson than the one provided by the DOJ’s report.

The DOJ concluded its report with better data in mind. The report ends with series of recommendations addressing issues of data and transparency in Ferguson, including the following that stressed the collection, openness and public reporting of data by the police and municipal court:

  • Improve collection and review of stop, search, ticketing and arrest data
  • Institute use-of-force reporting system separate from the offense report and “improve collection, review and response to use-of-force data
  • Produce and make public regular reports on police activities and policies
  • Produce and make public court payment processes and improve tracking of imposed fines data
  • Improve accuracy of data reported to the Missouri Courts Administrator and make any other data available online.

Integral to the improvement of its criminal justice system is Ferguson’s application of these transparency recommendations. Currently, we depend on investigations like this one to understand how a police department operates — and we emerge with an in-depth understanding of only one department. If every police department applied the recommendations of this report to its department, much more would be known about the state of American policing.