Lessons for Fort Worth in Ferguson report

Former Chief  Halstead and members of The Black and Brown Caucus.
Former Chief Halstead and members of The Black and Brown Caucus. Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

On Wednesday, the Justice Department released a much-anticipated report on the Ferguson, Mo., police department.

Ferguson has been under scrutiny since last summer, when unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson.

A grand jury in Missouri declined to indict Wilson and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division declined to file federal charges.

But the incident incited nationwide protests and prompted a DOJ “pattern or practice” investigation, focused on the Ferguson Police Department’s use of force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and treatment of detainees by officers inside Ferguson’s jail.

The DOJ’s 100-page report chronicled systemic problems in the city’s law enforcement practices, including routine violations of the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause and using unreasonable force against them. These violations, the report found, were disproportionately directed at minority populations.

“I don’t think that is typical of what happens across the country,” said President Obama to an interviewer on Sirius XM’s radio, Friday. “But it’s not an isolated incident.”

Indeed. In many cities and suburbs across the country, some of the findings about Ferguson sound uncomfortably familiar, particularly those that relate to the relationship between law enforcement and the community and the disparate treatment — real or perceived — of people of color.

Not even Fort Worth has been immune to these problems.

In 2009, a mentally ill black man died after being shocked for several seconds with a Taser by a white police officer.

In 2011, a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict a white officer for the shooting death of 32-year-old Charal “RaRa” Thomas, a black man.

The incidents sparked controversy, protests and calls for the resignation of then-Chief Jeffrey Halstead. Some accused police of a pattern of excessive force against minorities.

In nearby Grapevine, the recent shooting death of an unarmed Hispanic man has raised similar questions about excessive force and racial bias.

These incidents notwithstanding, the systemic discrimination problems that plague cities like Ferguson do not appear to have taken root in Fort Worth.

A 2013 racial profiling analysis of the FWPD required by Texas law found that “there are no methodologically conclusive indications of systemic profiling by the department.”

The analysis did show that, compared to their white counterparts, slightly higher percentages of black and Hispanic drivers stopped were subject to search.

And despite the well-documented accusations of harassment and discrimination within the FWPD, former Chief Halstead was largely successful building a strong relationship between law enforcement officers and the diverse community they are sworn to serve.

Still, as Sgt. Roy Hudson, president of the Fort Worth Black Law Enforcement Officers Association told Star-Telegram reporter Monica Nagy in December, “It only takes one tragic incident to destroy or betray trust.”

Fort Worth isn’t Ferguson. But it will take conscious efforts to maintain strong community policing, improve transparency and increase communication in order to keep it that way.