Attorney General Eric Holder will be in Ferguson, Missouri, on Wednesday to meet with FBI and law enforcement officials, as well as community leaders, although it's unclear what effect he will have on the tinderbox the northern St. Louis suburbs have become — especially after local cops on Tuesday shot and killed a second young black man in as many weeks.
Holder hasn't commented on the second shooting. He is making the trip primarily to meet with the principal players surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old gunned down by a white Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9.
In a statement announcing his trip to the region, Holder said Monday, "I intend to meet with FBI investigators and prosecutors on the ground from the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney's Office officials about the ongoing investigation."
Holder also said he found "the selective release of sensitive information" in the case "troubling."
And in a "Message to the people of Ferguson" posted on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website Tuesday, Holder put his mission bluntly:
"This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent. And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding — and robust action — aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve. Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community."
Cornell University Law Professor Jens David Ohlin believes Holder's role will be largely "socio-political" but could also help to spur some immediate policy changes in local law enforcement before an angry community erupts again.
"There's not a lot of time right now, [so] maybe he's going down there in an informal way to encourage the local officials to reform their practices, so he can see some results much quicker," Ohlin told NBC News. "Another possibility is he's hoping, and the president is hoping, that his mere presence there will have some calming effect."
"He'll be able to mediate between the law enforcement community, which obviously sees Holder as being the highest law enforcement official in the country, and the African-American community, which knows that Holder is one of the highest ranking African-American officials in the whole country," said Ohlin. "That's not an explicitly legal function. It's more of a socio-political function."
Ohlin noted that normally, in a case with less media attention, "you wait for the locals to do their investigation and only if there's some kind of problem there does the Justice Department step in — you want to give the local officials some breathing room to do it right on their own."
Of course, as the first black U.S. attorney general, Holder would seem to have more of a personal connection to the events unfolding in Ferguson than any of his predecessors.
He in the past has spoken of how his father, a Barbadian immigrant, was tossed out of a "whites only" train car while wearing his World War II Army uniform. And Holder, during the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case last year, told an NAACP convention that he had advised his son on how a black man should act and speak when confronted by police — the same talk his father had given him as a boy growing up in Queens, N.Y. "I had to do this to protect my boy," he said.
"It's a powerful message," William Yeomans, a law school fellow at American University who worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for more than two decades, told The Associated Press. "He's the embodiment of law enforcement, and the positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this incident."
But Holder, as the highest law enforcement official in the land, can't let his personal emotions lead to a belief that there is bias in the prosecution of the case. President Barack Obama himself said at a news conference Monday that "I've got to make sure that I don't look like I'm putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other."
In the same way, if Holder were to come out to strongly on one side or the other before all of the evidence was presented, the case could be tarnished.
A law enforcement source told NBC News that Justice Department strongly objected to the Ferguson police decision last week to release surveillance video purporting to show Brown robbing a store shortly before he was shot, arguing that the video would further inflame tensions. In the end, Holder's department managed to persuade police to withhold the video, but for only one day.
Holder is generally known for being a reserved speaker, and he isn't expected to speak too far out of turn.
"I suspect he will be careful about what he says," Ohlin said. "He always speaks in very measured, thoughtful phrases, and I don't see him talking out of school."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published August 20 2014, 1:44 AM