Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday announced a sweeping federal civil rights investigation of the police department of Ferguson, Missouri, citing a “deep mistrust” between officers and the people who live there.
Holder said the investigation would determine whether officers in Ferguson had “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.”
He said that the investigation would analyze police use of force, traffic stops, searches and the treatment of detainees. It will go beyond the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white officer, Darren Wilson, on Aug. 9.
Four of the department’s 54 officers are black, while the city population is about two-thirds black. State statistics have also shown that blacks in St. Louis County, including Ferguson, are more likely to be pulled over and more likely to be arrested during traffic stops than whites.
Holder said that his conversations with the people of Ferguson, when he visited in the aftermath of the Brown shooting, had shown the pattern of mistrust.
He said that Justice Department officials had also reviewed records, including racial statistics for police stops, before deciding the open the investigation. The Justice Department is investigating the Brown shooting separately, as is a grand jury in the St. Louis area.
The Ferguson mayor and police chief both told NBC News on Thursday that they welcomed the federal investigation.
In Ferguson, within feet of where Brown was killed, one man, Jerdonn Hill, told NBC News on Thursday that he welcomed the federal investigation because he does not trust local investigators to be unbiased.
“I’m not gonna say the whole force is bad,” he said. He said that he had had “a couple of run-ins with a lot of Ferguson officers, but not all of them bad, you know? Not all of them bad.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it had opened more than 20 similar investigations into police departments across the country over the past five years. It said it is enforcing 14 agreements to “reform law enforcement practices at agencies large and small.”
— Erin McClam and Aaron Mermelstein
First published September 4 2014, 11:14 AM