WASHINGTON • Saying he was "shocked" by what his investigators found out about Ferguson police and courts, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday the Justice Department would be prepared to dismantle that city's police department "if that's what's necessary."
"We are prepared to use all the powers that we have... to ensure that the situation changes there," Holder told reporters after returning Friday from a trip to South Carolina with President Obama. "That means everything from working with them to coming up with an entirely new structure."
Holder commented two days after his Department of Justice issued a report he said exposed "implicit" and "explicit" racial bias among Ferguson police that created a "deeply polarized" community" and an "intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault, under siege," by police.
But senior officials at the Justice Department also said they were encouraged by Ferguson officials' initial reaction to their report, and pointed out that several of the 26 reform measures DOJ is now trying to get Ferguson to agree to have already begun.
Holder had said on Wednesday that he would not rule out anything in DOJ's actions toward Ferguson, should an amicable reform agreement not come about between the city and his department. But Friday's mention explicitly included the federal government moving to shut down the Ferguson Police Department if it felt the city was not cooperating on reforms.
However, Holder is a lame duck at the DOJ, and it is unclear whether his possible successor believes a shutdown should be on the table this early in the negotiations with Ferguson officials.
The nomination of Loretta Lynch to replace Holder could come to a Senate vote soon, and her supporters appear to have the votes necessary to approve her. Many Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., plan to vote against her.
Others Lynch critics have said they worry she will not be independent enough from Obama or will change some of Holder's policies they have long not liked.
Among other things, Republicans have accused Holder of not adequately pursuing allegations of corruption in the IRS's oversight of conservative groups, and his role in a controversial "Fast and Furious" program that critics say allowed guns to get in the hands of Mexican criminals and may have been used in the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Holder, however, is using his final days to hone in on race and policing. His rhetoric Friday was not only a warning to Ferguson, it was meant for departments far beyond the St. Louis suburbs.
'"I was not only surprised by what I found, I'm not sure that's a strong enough word," Holder said of Ferguson. "I expected it as I got preliminary reports, but I was shocked towards the end by the numbers that we saw and the breadth of the practices that we uncovered. The notion that you would use a law enforcement agency or law enforcement generally to generate revenue, and then the callous way in which that was done and the impact that it had on the lives of the ordinary citizens of that municipality, was just appalling. Appalling. And that is not something that we're going to tolerate."
Referring to police departments across the country, Holder continued: "I hope they're listening to these comments and understand the intensity with which the feelings are felt at the federal government level to ensure that we use all the tools that we can to make sure that what happened in Ferguson is uncovered and simply does not happen in any other part of the country. But I also want to make people understand, there are 18,000 police departments in this country, and I think what we saw in Ferguson was an anomaly."