SEATTLE — Felix Vargas read the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, Missouri, and thought some of it sounded awfully familiar: a mostly white police department overseeing a mostly minority town; questionable uses of force; officers ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill residents.
They’re the same issues his heavily Hispanic community, the agricultural Washington city of Pasco, has confronted since the fatal police shooting of an immigrant farmworker last month.
“We know Pasco is only the most recent area where this has happened,” said Vargas, chairman of a local Hispanic business organization called Consejo Latino. “We have a national problem. We continue to struggle with this issue of policing.”
Ferguson has become an emblem of the tensions between minorities and police departments nationwide since Darren Wilson, a white officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, last summer. The Justice Department cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing, but in its report last week, it made numerous allegations against the city’s police department that included racial disparities in arrests, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement – essentially using the black community as a piggy bank to support the city’s budget through fines.
Though the report centered on Ferguson, its findings have resonated beyond the St. Louis suburbs as residents in some communities across the country say they feel they face the same struggles with their police departments and city leadership.
President Barack Obama addressed the issue Friday on the eve of the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when police beat scores of people at a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. While not typical, the issues raised in the Ferguson report also were not isolated, he said.
On Saturday, protesters took to the streets in Madison, Wisconsin, after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 19-year-old by a white police officer, chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Authorities said the police officer fired his weapon after he was assaulted. The officer was placed on administrative leave pending results of an investigation by an outside state agency.
“These communities are vulnerable because they don’t believe the law is there to protect them,” said Kevin Jones, a black, 36-year-old Iraq war veteran who lives in Saginaw, Michigan, a once predominantly white city that’s now about half black. He recalled being pulled over and arrested in 2011 for having his music too loud in the wrong part of town. The noise complaint was dropped when an officer failed to show for his hearing, but Jones said he still had to pay to get his car back.
Saginaw’s police force, which is three-quarters white, came under scrutiny after officers killed a homeless, mentally ill, black man in 2012 when he refused to drop a knife. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has called for the Justice Department to conduct a review of the department’s practices. The city meanwhile established a citizens committee to try to improve relations with police.
Community leaders in Anaheim, California, have also been seeking a federal review of their department. Demonstrators rioted over two officer-involved shootings in 2012, and residents said Hispanics seemed to be singled out by police in a city that had gone from mostly white when Disneyland was built to mostly Latino.
Jose Moreno, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino community group, said he didn’t believe the overt profiling uncovered in Ferguson occurred in Anaheim, but unless there’s a federal investigation he may never know.
“I think it is great the Department of Justice decided to do it somewhere. It just begs the question: Why not here?” he said.
In Pasco, where Vargas lives, the racial makeup of the city has changed over the years and now it’s more than half Hispanic, but only one in five of its police are. Even fewer speak fluent Spanish.
In February, three officers – two white and one Hispanic – fatally shot Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant, near a busy intersection after police said he threw rocks at them. Vargas said Zambrano-Montes may have suffered from mental illness or substance abuse.
Mayor Matt Watkins said Pasco is open to a federal or state review of its policing and he’d be interested to see more data on arrest rates or other potential indicators of discriminatory policing.
That’s something police everywhere should be looking at, said former Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who helped oversee a federal investigation that found Seattle police were too quick to use force.
“At this time in our history, every police department in America should be reevaluating their relationships with the people they serve,” Durkan said. “But it doesn’t fall just to the police departments. We all have to look hard at the economic disparities that cause some of the inequality, at how we deal with mental illness, and at what we want the role of our police departments to be.”
San Diego State University Professor Joshua Chanin, who has studied Justice Department efforts to reform police departments, said departments could more systematically collect and publish arrest, traffic stop and citation data by race. That could help deter biased policing, because police would be more sensitive to what their statistics show, and it could help validate – or dispel – notions in the community that some groups are singled out.
Even when investigations bring reform, perceptions can be slow to change.
In Miami, the Justice Department came in after seven black men were killed by officers over an eight-month period ending in 2011. The controversy forced out the police chief and brought changes on how police use deadly force, though some say there still aren’t enough blacks among the department’s brass.
In Liberty City, an impoverished, mostly black neighborhood, suspicions remain.
Standing outside the salon and tattoo parlor where he works, Ronnie Bless put it this way: “If you fit a certain profile, they can do what they want to you.”
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