Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that the Justice Department will conduct sweeping civil rights investigations of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department and surrounding St. Louis County law enforcement offices following the August shooting of a black teenager.
“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,” Mr. Holder said.
He said the investigation would “assess the police department’s use of force, including deadly force” and “analyze stops, searches and arrests” conducted by law enforcement officers.
Federal investigators also will “examine the treatment of individuals detained at Ferguson’s city jail, in addition to other potentially discriminatory policing techniques and tactics that are brought to light.”
Molly Moran, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said investigations like this usually take months, sometimes longer.
“There’s no set deadline, and there’s no standard time period,” she said.
The Washington Times could not reach the Ferguson Police Department for comment Thursday.
Sometimes-contentious protests have occurred in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police Officer Darren Wilson.
Officer Wilson said that Brown attacked him and posed a danger, but witnesses have said the teenager was surrendering with his hands up. An autopsy found that Brown had been shot at least six times, twice in the head.
The Justice Department has been investigating the specifics of the confrontation between Brown and Officer Wilson, but Thursday’s announcement indicates the start of a broader look at St. Louis County police forces, their demographics and how they interact with the communities they serve. All but four of the police department’s 54 officers are white, but roughly two-thirds of Ferguson is black.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, called the announcement “a step in the right direction to help ensure we’re taking a hard look at police practices and civil rights enforcement in Ferguson.”
The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) also announced it would work with St. Louis County law enforcement to ensure police actions are constitutional.
“The recent disturbances in Ferguson have revealed significant mistrust between the community and police agencies throughout the county, said COPS Director Ronald L. Davis.
Mr. Holder said his agency initially did not intend to scrutinize police forces in areas around Ferguson as closely as they will that specific agency, but he said he is “pretty certain that we will be doing an examination in some form or fashion.”
Mr. Holder said the initial investigation would not look into the police’s hiring practices, an area that has garnered some criticism as one source of racial tensions.
“We’ll let the facts and the law take us where is appropriate,” he said. “If we have a basis to believe that part of the issues out there, should we found any, is lack of diversity on the police force, that is something we will look at.”
A federal grand jury that is looking at the facts of Brown’s death has not yet reached a verdict, but Mr. Holder said his announcement is not premature.
“All we’re saying at this point is that we’re opening an investigation to see if there are problems,” he said, adding that the agency had the support of local Missouri law officials.
But former FBI Assistant Director Ron Hosko said the Justice Department’s actions should be “colorblind and reinforce the rule of law.”
“This announcement and the activities that follow suggest a more political agenda: that the department has already reached conclusions and is unconcerned about Officer Wilson’s legal fate,” said Mr. Hosko, current president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
“Such a conclusion can only have a chilling effect on the thousands of law enforcement professionals who put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities,” he said.