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Justice Department report criticizes Ferguson for practices that reach beyond Missouri

The Ferguson, Mo., police department is an unholy, wretched mess of a law enforcement agency, according to a persuasive new report by the U.S. Justice Department. And it’s not alone. Many police departments around the country and around New York State should use it as a template to measure their own performances before tragedy makes the review inevitable.

The Justice Department began its investigation of Ferguson after last year’s fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. While reports strongly suggest that Brown, who is African-American, was an aggressor in his confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, the report makes clear that the department’s policing tactics were a nightmare in the making.

The report concluded that:

• The city, which is 67 percent black, used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures for the municipality.

• Officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause. African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of vehicle stops and 93 percent of arrests.

• Officers used racial slurs against minorities.

• Officers used stun guns without provocation.

• Officers treated people as suspicious for nothing more than challenging police tactics.

Altogether, it sounds more like a city under siege than one being protected and served.

Attorney General Eric Holder understood the connection between those policies and the eruption of violence after Brown’s shooting. Brown’s own responsibility for his death became less important than the sweep of long-term abuse at the hands of a reckless city and its police department.

“Seen in this context – amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices – it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”

It’s a painful report for Ferguson to absorb, but it offers a place to begin improving and a baseline, albeit a low one, from which to measure change. But if other mayors, city councils and police chiefs are paying attention, they are thinking “There, but for the grace of God …”

Consider New York City. For years there, the police department’s stop-and-frisk police targeted young black men. Often enough, those illegal searches produced marijuana or some other cause for police to make arrests. Yes, marijuana is illegal, but young white men weren’t being stopped, at least not in the numbers that African-Americans were.

That policy was ended by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and perhaps none too soon. Last summer, an African-American man selling illegal cigarettes in Staten Island died after police swarmed him and arrested him. In December, in apparent retribution, a man who may have been mentally ill shot his girlfriend, drove to New York and murdered two police officers in their squad car.

It’s impossible to cite cause and effect, of course, but the Ferguson experience and the Justice Department’s report make clear that police need to earn – not command – the respect of the communities where they work. That requires effort, not just expectation.

Buffalo has had its own problems, as well, and not only with African American residents. Commissioner Daniel Derenda is aware of them and has publicly stated his goal of instilling within his department a more respectful and accountable culture.

But cultures don’t change easily, in Ferguson, in Buffalo or in New York City. Hard work awaits, but it needs to be done unless those cities, and many others, want to risk becoming the next Ferguson.