By Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON — A Justice Department investigation found sweeping patterns of racial bias within the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, with officers routinely discriminating against blacks by using excessive force, issuing petty citations and making baseless traffic stops, according to law enforcement officials familiar with its findings.
The report, which Ferguson city officials said would be released Wednesday, marks the culmination of a months-long investigation into a police department that federal officials have described as troubled and that commanded national attention after one of its officers shot and killed an unarmed black man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, last summer.
It chronicles discriminatory practices across the city’s criminal justice system, detailing problems from initial encounters with patrol officers to treatment in the municipal court and jail. Federal law enforcement officials described its contents on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly before the report is released.
The full report could serve as a road map for significant changes by the department, if city officials accept its findings. Past federal investigations of local police departments have encouraged overhauls of fundamental police procedures such as traffic stops and the use of service weapons. The Justice Department maintains the right to sue police departments that resist making changes.
The city of Ferguson released a statement acknowledging that Justice Department officials supplied a copy of the report to the mayor, city manager, police chief and city attorney during a private meeting Tuesday in downtown St. Louis.
The investigation, which began weeks after Brown’s killing last August, is being released as Attorney General Eric Holder prepares to leave his job following a six-year tenure that focused largely on civil rights. The findings are based on interviews with police leaders and residents, a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests.
Federal officials found that black motorists from 2012 to 2014 were more than twice as likely as whites to be searched during traffic stops, even though they were 26 percent less likely to be found carrying contraband, according to a summary of the findings.
The review also found that blacks were 68 percent less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by a municipal court judge. And from April to September of last year, 95 percent of people kept at the city jail for more than two days were black, it found.
Of the cases in which the police department documented the use of force, 88 percent involved blacks, and of the 14 dog bites for which racial information is available, all 14 victims were black.
Overall, African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson, about 10 miles north of downtown St. Louis. The police department has been criticized as racially imbalanced and not reflective of the community’s demographic makeup. At the time of the shooting, just three of 53 officers were black, though the mayor has said he’s trying to create a more diverse police force.
Brown’s killing set off weeks of protests and initiated a national dialogue about police officers’ use of force and their relations with minority communities.
The report says there is direct evidence of racial bias among police officers and court workers, and details a criminal justice system that issues citations for petty infractions such as walking in the middle of the street, putting the raising of revenue from fines ahead of public safety.