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U.S. attorney general announces new civil rights probe in Ferguson

U.S. attorney general announces new civil rights probe in Ferguson

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WASHINGTON • Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday opened a broader civil rights investigation of the practices and procedures of the Ferguson Police Department in the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.

The Civil Rights Division will investigate whether Ferguson police have engaged in a pattern of civil rights violations, Holder said.

The attorney general also announced that the Justice Department has begun what he called a partnership with the St. Louis County Police Department to assess the county department’s response to the demonstrations that followed the shooting.

The investigation of Ferguson police will include the department’s use of force, traffic stops, searches and arrests, Holder said, adding that Ferguson officials welcomed the inquiry and pledged their cooperation. Justice Department officials said there is no timeline on the length of the investigation, and that it would depend on the cooperation of local authorities.

The goal, Holder said, is to reach an agreement with the department that would establish new tactics to eliminate bias and increase community confidence in the department.

Holder pledged a “fair, thorough investigation” that would result in “lasting, positive change.”

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. Mayor James Knowles III told the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday night that the city has “nothing to hide” and welcomes an investigation.

Holder said his department could expand the inquiry later to include police in neighboring communities.

The initial investigation will not look into the hiring practices of the Ferguson Police Department, which has been criticized for having only a handful of black officers in a majority-black community.

“Those numbers don’t in and of themselves” prove discrimination, said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Molly Moran, although she said that the broader investigation could lead there.

As for the St. Louis County Police Department, which has been criticized for its forceful response to demonstrations and rioting that followed the shooting, Holder said department Chief Jon Belmar has “voluntarily accepted the collaborative reform process.”

Holder said Belmar asked the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office to review police response to the demonstrations and violence that occurred in the aftermath of Brown’s death.

In a press conference later Thursday, Belmar said he welcomed the federal scrutiny.

“After 11 days of protests, not one shot was fired” by a county police officer, he said. “Our goal was the preservation of life, and we accomplished that.”

He said he has been in talks with the Justice Department since the days after the shooting and requested the department’s review Wednesday.

“The legacy of the St. Louis County Police Department is to be open and transparent, and I’m not afraid to have outside reviews in here — and I can’t think of a better time to do it.”

Holder said that while he was in St. Louis last month he talked with many people in “meetings as well as listening sessions” about general policing practices and the lack of diversity on the Ferguson Police Department, which is overwhelmingly white.

“These anecdotal accounts underscored the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson that has received a good deal of attention,” Holder said.

“As a result of this history of mistrust of law enforcement — and following an extensive review of documented allegations and other available data — we have determined that there is cause for the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Ferguson police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.”

In a press conference at the Justice Department headquarters, Holder stressed how both his own experience with law enforcement, as well as interactions with Ferguson residents on the Aug. 20 visit, had weighed on the decision to launch the broader investigation.

Holder was both praised and criticized for making the trip while tension ran high.

“I think the trip was invaluable for my own perspective to have obtained in a very personal way a sense of what the situation was there, by interacting with residents of Ferguson, by speaking to the investigators who were involved in the ongoing investigation,” Holder said.

The Post-Dispatch reported in the wake of the Brown shooting that since 1997, 21 law enforcement agencies around the country — starting with Pittsburgh and ranging from East Haven, Conn., to Los Angeles — have signed consent agreements to improve policing after Justice Department investigations.

Holder has stepped up the pace of investigations of local police, with twice as many as any predecessor, according to the Washington Post. The Post has reported that at least 34 departments are now being investigated.

Holder said he did not think Thursday’s announcement would influence St. Louis County’s investigation of the shooting, or the grand jury that has been hearing evidence on it.

“One should not draw a connection between what we are doing today and … what the grand jury is considering,” Holder said. “These are separate matters.”

Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump issued a statement saying the family was “encouraged” by the broader, departmental investigation.

“We believe that transparency in law enforcement is the only way to build trust in the community, not just in the killing of Michael Brown, but for others who have suffered as well,” the statement said. “That is why we are advocating for the use of body cameras for law enforcement around the country. We can’t have another young man’s life taken amid murky circumstances.”

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who had called for the investigation, said he welcomed the news. “I am very gratified that the Department of Justice has responded to my concerns and those of my constituents,” he said in a written statement.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called it “a step in the right direction.” In a statement, she said she is pleased the St. Louis County Police Department is cooperating.

Christine Byers and David Hunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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