In the city of Ferguson, nearly everyone is a wanted criminal.
That may seem like hyperbole, but it is a literal fact. In Ferguson — a city with a population of 21,000 — 16,000 people have outstanding arrest warrants, meaning that they are currently actively wanted by the police. That statistic should be truly shocking. Yet in the wake of the Department of Justice’s withering report on the city’s policing practices, it has gone almost entirely unmentioned. News reports and analysis have focused on the racism discovered in departmental emails, and the gangsterish financial “shakedown” methods deployed against African Americans. In doing so, they have missed the full picture of Ferguson’s operation, which reveals a totalizing police regime beyond any of Kafka’s ghastliest nightmares.
The Department of Justice’s 102-page report is a rich source of damning facts about the Ferguson criminal justice system. But tucked halfway in and passed over quickly is a truly revelatory set of figures: the arrest warrant data for the Ferguson Municipal Court.
It turns out that nearly everyone in the city is wanted for something. Even internal police department communications found the number of arrest warrants to be “staggering”. By December of 2014, “over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court.” The report makes clear that this refers to individual people, rather than cases, so people with many cases are not being counted multiple times. (Though clearly some of these cannot be Ferguson residents, since the number represents more than the entire adult population and Ferguson policing applies to visitors as well.) However, if we do look at the number of cases, the portrait is even starker. In 2013, 32,975 offenses had associated warrants, so that there were 1.5 offenses for every city resident.
That means that the city of Ferguson quite literally has more crimes than people.
To give some context as to how truly extreme this is, a comparison may be useful. In 2014, the Boston Municipal Court System, for a city of 645,000 people, issued about 2,300 criminal warrants. The Ferguson Municipal Court issued 9,000, for a population 1/30th the size of Boston’s.
This complete penetration of policing into everyday life establishes a world of unceasing terror and violence. When everyone is a criminal by default, police are handed an extraordinary amount of discretionary power. “Discretion” may sound like an innocuous or even positive policy, but its effect is to make every single person’s freedom dependent on the mercy of individual officers. There are no more laws, there are only police. The “rule of law,” by which people are supposed to be treated equally according to a consistent set of principles, becomes the “rule of personal whim.”
And this is precisely what occurs in Ferguson. As others have noted, the Ferguson courts appear to work as an orchestrated racket to extract money from the poor. The thousands upon thousands of warrants that are issued, according to the DOJ, are “not to protect public safety but rather to facilitate fine collection.” Residents are routinely charged with minor administrative infractions. Most of the arrest warrants stem from traffic violations, but nearly every conceivable human behavior is criminalized. An offense can be found anywhere, including citations for “Manner of Walking in Roadway,” “High Grass and Weeds,” and 14 kinds of parking violation. The dystopian absurdity reaches its apotheosis in the deliciously Orwellian transgression “failure to obey.” (Obey what? Simply to obey.) In fact, even if one does obey to the letter, solutions can be found. After Henry Davis was brutally beaten by four Ferguson officers, he found himself charged with “destruction of official property” for bleeding on their uniforms.
None of this is even to mention the blinding levels of racism, which remain the central fact of police interactions in Ferguson and nationwide. The overwhelming force of this violent and exploitative policing system is directed at the African American population. In 2013, 92 percent of Ferguson’s arrest warrants were issued against African Americans, and black Fergusonians were 68 percent less likely than others to have their court cases dismissed. The racism is so blatant and comprehensive that the DOJ concluded that “Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias.” Considering the qualified and colorless language typically deployed in government documents, this is an astonishingly forceful statement.
Ferguson’s racism has been central to the media coverage of the release of the DOJ report. But in a certain way, by focusing entirely on disparate racial impacts without examining the sheer scale of the brutal state juggernaut, one misses crucial facts. MSNBC listed as the DOJ’s number one “most shocking” finding the fact that “at least one municipal employee thought electing a black president was laughable.” But the existence of racist views in the department is not the most shocking fact, not by a country mile. Rather, endemic racism in policing comes standard. However, that racism occurs in the wider context of an ever-enlarging interlocking system of administrative bureaucracy and police violence.
The other pitfall in analyzing the Ferguson report is to see it as being about Ferguson. There are 19,492 municipal governments in America, and the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim. In fact, there is strong evidence that in the world of better funded, more militarized, more technologically advanced police departments, Ferguson is simply a high-profile case study. While the Ferguson nightmare may dwarf the problems in cities like Boston, American policing is so out-of-control that Ferguson-style practices can occur on at least some level in almost every department.
It’s hard to believe, but the Ferguson police department’s massive deliberate racism only represents one of its problems. The DOJ report shows not just a racist criminal justice system, but one in which the very act of being alive has been made a crime, and in which nearly everybody is wanted by the law at every moment of every day.
This post was co-authored by Oren Nimni, a civil rights attorney in Boston and member of the National Lawyers Guild’s executive board.