Six Ferguson officers face federal lawsuits over use of force
Jeff Roberson, AP
Federal investigators are focused on one Ferguson, Missouri police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, but at least six other police officers in the town's 53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.
In four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, colleagues of Darren Wilson's have separately contested a variety of allegations, including killing a mentally ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers' clothes.
One officer has faced three internal affairs probes and two lawsuits over claims he violated civil rights and used excessive force while working at a previous police department in the mid-2000s. That department demoted him after finding credible evidence to support one of the complaints, and he subsequently was hired by the Ferguson force.
Police officials from outside Ferguson and plaintiffs' lawyers say the nature of such cases suggests there is a systemic problem within the Ferguson police force. Department of Justice officials said they are considering a broader probe into whether there is a pattern of using excessive force that routinely violates people's civil rights.
Counting Wilson, whose shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 set off a firestorm of protests and a national debate on race and policing, about 13 percent of Ferguson's officers have faced excessive-force investigations. Comparable national data on excessive force probes is not available. But the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project, funded by the libertarian Cato Institute, estimated on the basis of 2010 data that about 1 percent of U.S. police officers — 9.8 out of every 1,000 — will be cited for or charged with misconduct. Half of those cases involve excessive force.
The Ferguson Police Department and city officials declined to comment on the cases.
In all but one of the cases, the victims were black. Among the six officers involved in the cases, one is African American.
Ferguson has plenty of company when it comes to federal scrutiny of police departments.
Under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., the Justice Department has initiated twice as many reviews of police departments for possible constitutional violations as the next most prolific of his predecessors. At least 34 other departments are under investigation for alleged civil rights violations.
But Clarence Harmon, a former St. Louis mayor and city police chief, said the number and types of allegations in Ferguson set the city's department apart.
"The cases themselves are fairly extraordinary — so is the volume," said Harmon, who in 1997 became the second black mayor of the city. "It's prima facie evidence of discriminatory practices. I would be surprised if Justice didn't make a recommendation that they be placed under scrutiny."
James Pasco Jr., national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, cautions that police officers are constantly accused of using excessive and that those accusations are just "one side of the story" and do not tell exactly what happened. In 90 percent of cases in which a department has a systemic problem, the issue is with poor management, not the individual officers, he said.
"To suggest that police officers are a marauding, white occupying army out there to deprive minorities of their civil rights is at variance with common sense," Pasco said. "You can't have rogue officers in a well-managed police department."
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