The Limits of the DOJ Ferguson Report in a Fractured Region

The Department of Justice released the findings of its investigation into civil rights abuses in Ferguson this week. The report is unsparing in its indictment of intentional racial bias within the police department and city government, and the unequal application of the law on black residents without cause. Analysis by people familiar with the DOJ’s involvement with other police forces suggests that the DOJ will forcefully compel their suggested changes, or dissolve the police department entirely.

As striking as this report is—and as clear as it is to dispel the myth that race is not a factor—its effects are inherently limited. Ferguson is home to only 21,000 people, one of 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which has a total population greater than one million. The independent City of St. Louis houses another 320,000 residents, more than half of whom are non-white. The DOJ may reform the Ferguson police department into an exemplary force, or dissolve it altogether and allow the St. Louis County police to patrol the town. Neither will sufficiently address the widespread problems facing the St. Louis region or the country as a whole.

St. Louis is fragmented, divided intentionally over decades into white and black, rich and poor. Many other cities are similarly fractured. Forceful reform of a single police department, representing barely one percent of the region’s population, is nearly meaningless. The divisions that have contributed to St. Louis’ problems must be addressed alongside raking the Ferguson police department over the coals. Unnecessary police forces should be dissolved, and many of their cities absorbed into larger municipalities. The City of St. Louis and the County should be reunited in order to work together, not compete. 

Only a region so strengthened will be poised to lead the nation in meaningful reforms. Only if we heal these longstanding divisions can we turn a conversation into action. Bust open Ferguson, break it down and build it up into a city and a police force that serves its residents proudly and well. But to stop at Ferguson would fail St. Louis to an extent we cannot afford.