U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department has opened a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into the practices of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of the midwest city of St. Louis.
The announcement Thursday follows the August 9 police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, at the hands of a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Brown’s death set off several days of protests in Ferguson that included clashes between demonstrators and police.
Police say Wilson stopped Brown and a friend as they walked in the middle of a street. They say Brown assaulted the officer and tried to take his gun, causing Wilson to open fire. Other witnesses, however, have given a different account. They also say Brown was shot several times even though he had run away from the police officer and raised his arms in surrender.
Holder said the broader civil rights investigation will look at the practices of the Ferguson Police Department in recent years, including police stops of citizens and arrest patterns. Ferguson’s population is about 70 percent black but the police force is predominantly white.
At a news conference at the Justice Department, Holder said the decision to go ahead with a broader investigation was based in part on his visit to the community last month and meetings with local officials and residents. “In meetings and listening sessions as well as informal conversations, people consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general police practices and from the lack of diversity on Ferguson’s police force," he said.
Holder told reporters local officials have welcomed the investigation and pledged their cooperation.
This latest probe is separate from the ongoing civil rights investigation into the circumstances of Brown’s death. In addition, a local grand jury is hearing evidence and is deciding whether Wilson should be indicted.
Holder also announced that the Justice Department will engage the St. Louis County Police Department in what he called a “collaborative reform effort” aimed at improving relations between officers and the local community.
Experts on race relations say the announcement of the broader federal civil rights investigation sends a symbolically powerful message to citizens in Ferguson.
Georgetown University law professor Anthony Cook says the decision for another federal probe could reassure some local residents. “I think it is incredibly important," he said. "When you are dealing with a situation like this where there is pervasive distrust with regard to the ability of the local law enforcement officers to do their jobs in a competent, objective and unbiased manner, it quells some of the discontent and anxiety to have the federal government pursuing a parallel investigation.”
Over the last five years, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has opened 20 investigations around the country of police departments accused of a pattern of violating civil rights. In addition, the department has prosecuted some 300 individual police officers for misconduct.
The police department investigations often lead to agreements known as consent decrees that specify changes local departments should make to ease racial tensions and restore the confidence of local residents in their local law enforcement officials.