WASHINGTON — A federal investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department — announced Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder — will examine whether officers have routinely engaged in racial profiling or a pattern of using excessive force.
Mr. Holder said the Justice Department will also conduct an “intensive review” of racial profiling, stops, searches, frisking and the handling of mass demonstrations by police officers in the St. Louis County Police Department, which voluntarily agreed to the review.
“Anecdotal accounts underscore the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson,” Mr. Holder said. “As a result of this history, 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.”
Mr. Holder’s announcement came less than a month after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer who has claimed that he acted in self-defense. Mr. Brown was unarmed when he was shot at least six times on the afternoon of Aug. 9, and days of often-violent confrontations between police and demonstrators erupted in the streets of the St. Louis suburb.
The broad federal probe is in addition to separate investigations already launched by the FBI, county police and a grand jury into the shooting of Mr. Brown.
The Justice Department will also enter into a “collaborative reform effort” with the St. Louis County Police Department, which trains officers in Ferguson and other agencies in the St. Louis area, including the highway patrol. The county review will include technical assistance from the Justice Department.
“Because St. Louis County administers training programs for officers throughout the area, including members of the Ferguson Police Department, it makes sense to include the county police department as part of our comprehensive approach,” Mr. Holder said.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was the first agency to participate in the collaborative reform process, which the Justice Department started in 2011. The department eventually adopted more than 75 recommendations regarding the use of force. The Justice Department is also using this process to work with the Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash., police departments.
The Ferguson investigation will begin this week and be conducted by the Justice Department’s civil rights division. It will follow a process that the division has used in probes of 20 other police departments across the country in response to civil rights complaints, more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five years.
Mr. Holder said the investigation will include a review of citizen complaints against officers and how those complaints were investigated by the department. The probe will also examine the department’s record of traffic stops, searches and arrests, and its treatment of people detained in the city jail.
The investigation, which will likely take months to complete, will also assess the type of training officers receive on racial profiling and use of force, including deadly force. It will most likely take months to complete, and Mr. Holder said it should result in a cooperative agreement with the Ferguson department.
The attorney general said he and his investigators have been meeting with city, county and police officials for weeks, and that the departments are cooperating. Mr. Holder promised that the investigation will be conducted “rigorously and in a timely manner.”
But such probes can drag on for years. When asked about the status of the department’s two-year-long civil rights investigation into the slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., Mr. Holder said the probe is still “ongoing.”
Shortly before the announcement of the probe Thursday, the city of Ferguson and the Ferguson Police Department released a joint statement saying both “welcome” the Justice Department investigation. “Over the past few weeks we have hosted and participated in several meetings with the Department of Justice and feel our collaborative efforts are another step forward in showing our willingness to be transparent and forthright as we continue the process of earning back the trust of our residents and our neighbors in the St. Louis region,” the statement said.
During an afternoon news conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he had “invited” the Justice review. “We’re not afraid to have outside reviewers in here,” Chief Belmar said.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson did not respond to interview requests.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the investigation “a step in the right direction to help ensure we’re taking a hard look at police practices and civil rights enforcement in Ferguson.”
Some local community leaders praised the expanded probe, saying a broader investigation of police tactics is long overdue.
“Outside of the adverse socioeconomic issues, a history of police brutality is the No. 1 reason why what happened in Ferguson happened,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP chapter. “When we heard them say ‘yes, we’re doing it’ we were elated.”
Mr. Pruitt, who along with other local leaders has met with Justice Department officials, said it will be important for the probe to stretch beyond just Ferguson, to include departments in other local municipalities. “People keep talking about Ferguson. There are just as many communities around Ferguson, adjacent to Ferguson, that have the same issues and the exact same problems,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Ferguson was just a bull’s-eye for a larger problem.”
Black leaders in St. Louis said an external inquiry is welcomed and warranted, while police union officials said they are concerned that it might result in a “blame game” that fails to improve relations between the department and the community.
“Given the state of affairs and the perceived track record of the Ferguson Police Department, this is the right step,” said Clarence Harmon, the city of St. Louis’s second black mayor and a former city police chief.
James Pasco, national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said such Justice Department probes are most effective when they find solutions to systemic problems in the department instead of placing all the blame on individual officers.
“It’s all too common for them to lay the fault at the foot of the officer in the squad car,” he said. “That is inherently unfair. In does nothing to improve relations between officers and the community, which is vital to public safety. In most cases, the problems are with managerial deficiencies.”
Mr. Pasco pointed to a 2002 cooperative agreement in Cincinnati in which the ACLU, community representatives and police officials worked together on a plan to improve relationships between the city’s residents and police.
“You have to have community buy-in for it to work,” Mr. Pasco said. “It shouldn’t be a blame game. It should be a fix-it game.”
First Published September 4, 2014 3:00 PM