Ferguson, Missouri, may be miles away from Riverside, both geographically and demographically, but Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel believes his police officers could learn a lot from what went wrong there — and from what has transpired in the wake of those events.
Last month, Weitzel mandated that all of the department’s supervisors, including the civilian dispatch supervisor, read the 102-page report issued in March by the U.S. Department of Justice after its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.
“What struck me was that, by all accounts, it’s a suburban police department,” said Weitzel. “And while Riverside and Ferguson are different, the report details what went wrong, in general, in law enforcement.”
The Department of Justice investigation was conducted in the wake of protests, which followed the death of Michael Brown, a black man who was killed by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014.
The police officer, Darren Wilson, was not charged criminally with killing Brown. In the days following Brown’s death, large protests were met with a police response that has been strongly criticized.
But underlying the events that followed Brown’s death, the Department of Justice found, was the way the Ferguson Police Department operated generally and the way in which its officers interacted with the town’s citizens.
“My real goal,” said Weitzel, “was, ‘You think Ferguson couldn’t be Riverside? Some of what’s in that report has nothing to do with racial diversity, it has to do with police practice alone.”
The Department of Justice’s report is highly critical of Ferguson’s use of its police department as a revenue generator, which led to officers aggressively enforcing laws, most often targeting the town’s African-American population, without weighing whether such enforcement had much to do with public safety.
“Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the report stated.
Weitzel agreed with the report’s criticism of police departments being used as municipal revenue generators, saying, “You have to be careful of that line where [a municipality] is counting on that for their budget.”
With respect to making traffic stops, Weitzel said his message is to enforce traffic regulations but have a clear reason for making that stop.
“Just do your job and only stop people for legitimate reasons,” said Weitzel, who has two sons who are also police officers, one in Lockport and one in North Riverside.
Weitzel said he discussed the report with his department’s supervisory staff at a recent meeting and instructed them to discuss the report with the department’s police officers and dispatchers.
One of the aspects of the Department of Justice’s report that had an impact on Weitzel was its examination of how the Ferguson Police Department interacted with citizens and how that interaction had fostered such a distrust of police.
“The confluence of policing to raise revenue and racial bias thus has resulted in practices that not only violate the Constitution and cause direct harm to the individuals whose rights are violated, but also undermine community trust,” the report stated.
In the wake of Ferguson, police have come under more intense scrutiny and their actions are held up to a magnifying glass. Riverside police officers, he said, need to be aware of that more intense scrutiny.
“I told my officers, ‘If you haven’t realized it, law enforcement throughout the nation is changing,'” Weitzel said, “and over the next five years it will change dramatically.”