Friday, March 6, 2015

The Star's Unconscionable Slanting of the Ferguson Report

Posted By on Fri, Mar 6, 2015 at 5:00 PM

You can make errors of commission where you say something that isn't true, and errors of omission where you leave out vital information. The Star news team is guilty of a serious error of omission in its coverage of the Justice Department's Ferguson Report. The paper's only article about Ferguson Thursday discussed the Feds' decision not to charge Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, with no coverage of the scathing report detailing the grossly unfair treatment of Ferguson's minority community by the police department and justice system.

Thursday, the Star ran a long, detailed article, Feds: Evidence backs Ferguson officer's account in shooting. It was all about the evidence that resulted in the Justice Department not charging former officer Darren Wilson with a civil rights violation. It's important to note, that doesn't mean the Feds said Wilson was justified in killing Brown. It means the evidence didn't clear the very high bar the Feds have to jump over to show that Wilson intended to violate Brown's civil rights. Presented by itself, the article amounts to a shout-out to all those who think Wilson was justified in shooting Brown and were shocked and angered by what they believe was as an overreaction by the Ferguson community and other cities where demonstrators protested the killing.

The Feds' decision about Wilson is only part of the story, and really the less important part. The Wilson/Brown incident exposed a racist police and judicial system which systematically profiled and unfairly targeted African Americans in the area, which is discussed in detail in the report.
Blacks in Ferguson accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests over a two-year period studied by investigators. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of those charged. A black motorist in Ferguson was twice as likely to be searched, according to the report, even though searches of whites turned up drugs and other contraband more often.

The Justice Department’s analysis found that these disparities could not be explained even when correcting for crime rates and demographics. “These disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias,” the Justice Department concluded.
The Star didn't tell that part of the story.

The tragic truth is, this kind of thing is a regular part of law enforcement around the country, and it can only be dealt with if it's made visible—which is the responsibility of local papers like the Star. It would be nice if people like Sheriff Arpaio were the rare exception, but they aren't. People like "Arizona's Sheriff" occupy too many leadership positions in too many police departments, and the officers serving under them follow the orders they're given, sometimes with racist gusto, sometimes simply because they're following orders. The problem can extend to local and state leadership and the judicial system as well. Sometimes the arrest-and-incarceration epidemic is as much a result of our out-of-control War on Drugs and zero tolerance policies as it is the specific intent of the people involved. But no matter the reason, the result is minority communities where the arrest and incarceration rates are far higher than they should be compared to similar rates of criminal behavior in other communities.

Maybe I should cut the Star some slack because it ran a Chicago Tribune editorial today dealing with the rest of the report, but I won't. It's a day late—Friday, while the Wilson/Brown story ran Thursday—and data short—far fewer words than the Thursday article, and less detailed since it's an opinion piece. Besides, the news department of the Star can't hide behind an piece chosen for inclusion by the editorial staff. There's a wall of separation between the two departments. While the editorial staff did a reasonable job of covering the entire report, the news department failed utterly.

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