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The lessons of Ferguson

The Justice Department on Wednesday released a devastating critique of police and city officials in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by an officer last year. Though the department did not find cause to bring a civil rights indictment against the officer who killed Michael Brown, the report paints a picture of a community riven by racial tension and a pervasive pattern and practice of discrimination by local officials. It should be a call for fundamental changes in that deeply troubled community, but it should also prompt the rest of us to consider whether our communities are really so different.

Department investigators conducted scores of interviews with local residents, police and city public officials in Ferguson and examined thousands of pages of court documents. Their findings proved conclusively that white police officers there had routinely practiced a predatory style of policing that deliberately deprived black residents of their rights. Blacks, who make up 63 percent of the population, accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops, and once stopped, they were twice as likely to be searched as whites. They were also more likely to be arrested, have force used against them and receive harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes.

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The disparate treatment of black citizens was not confined to the police department. Investigators also uncovered a pervasive pattern of discrimination by court officials and city government workers in levying fines and other penalties for routine traffic violations and other petty infractions. The documents made clear that Ferguson officials knowingly penalized blacks more harshly in such cases as a way of financing the costs of government. Such fines were the city's second-largest source of revenue after the sales tax.

The deep-seated racial animus that motivated the behavior of police in Ferguson toward African-Americans was clear from an email sent by a public official suggesting that President Barack Obama wouldn't remain in office for long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years?" Apparently the author of this racist humor felt no compunction against including it in an official government email — or fear of its ever being discovered.

The Justice Department report will serve as a basis for negotiations between the government and Ferguson officials aimed at correcting the abuses uncovered. If the city balks at reforms, the department may file suit to compel it to comply with federal civil rights statutes. So far, at least, Ferguson officials have said they will cooperate with the department and voluntarily adopt the changes it recommends. Let's hope they follow through.

It would be easy to read through the Justice Department's Ferguson report, shake our heads and be thankful we don't live there. Black-majority Baltimore has a black mayor, state's attorney and police commissioner, and recent comments by the latter about 1950s-style racism notwithstanding, the city does not have the kind of racial divide between its people and power structure that Ferguson does. In Baltimore County, where the minority population has grown rapidly in recent decades, officials have made a concerted effort to recruit, retain and promote more minorities in the police department.

Yet it was only a little over a decade ago that Maryland entered into a consent decree over a "pattern and practice" of racially discriminatory traffic stops by the state police. In December, a judge ordered the state to pay $600,000 in legal fees the ACLU and other groups had run up in an effort to get the state to release documents that would help show whether the police were abiding by that settlement. The debate last year over decriminalizing marijuana revealed that despite similar rates of use, blacks were far more likely to be arrested for simple possession — three times more likely statewide, and more than five times more likely in Baltimore City. In 2009, a state trooper, thinking he had hung up the phone, left a message on an Eastern Shore woman's voice mail in which he referred to her using a racial slur. The state is still fighting to keep secret what discipline, if any, the officer faced.

Meanwhile, amid the turmoil in Ferguson and reports of apparent police misconduct involving African-American residents in Baltimore last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts invited federal investigators to conduct a review of police practices here. That investigation is ongoing, but the mayor and Mr. Batts already have said they plan to equip city police officers with body cameras as a way of monitoring officers' interactions with the public and rebuilding trust between the department and local residents. Ms. Rawlings-Blake wants to initiate a pilot program by the end of the year.

Body cameras are no panacea, but they offer a chance to do something no after-the-fact Justice Department review can, which is to see what actually happens when the police and public interact. That's why we're concerned about bills in the General Assembly this year that would restrict the public's access to recordings made by the devices. Several law enforcement agencies are urging state lawmakers to amend Maryland's Public Information Act to sharply limit which images authorities would have to release, and to whom. Such proposals fly in the face of efforts to make policing in Maryland more transparent and hold misbehaving officers to account. Moreover, current law already gives police wide latitude to withhold recordings to protect both their investigations and citizens' privacy rights.

The federal investigation in Ferguson — which has already led to firings and other disciplinary action there — is a reminder of how important it is for us to forthrightly assess questions of racially disparate justice. We cannot pretend that it's a problem that only happens somewhere else, and we can't address it by burying information that allows us to take an honest look at ourselves.

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