Justice Dept. opens civil rights inquiry of Ferguson police

Justice Dept. opens civil rights inquiry of Ferguson police
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. talks with State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson in Florissant, Mo., in August 2014. The Justice Department plans to open an investigation into the practices of the Ferguson, Mo., police department after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

A federal civil rights investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department could broaden to include the conduct of officers throughout the St. Louis area, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Thursday as he announced the Justice Department’s latest effort to scrutinize local police agencies.

“This is not a stopgap or short-term solution,” he said. “It's a long-term strategy, founded on community policing that will provide a detailed road map to build trust, to bolster public safety [and] to ensure accountability.’’

Holder confirmed at a news conference that the department would investigate not only the Aug. 9 police killing of Michael Brown, 18, but the conduct and practices of the entire Ferguson Police Department.

During his visit to Ferguson, Holder said, “people consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices and from the lack of diversity on Ferguson’s police force.” The community is predominantly black and its police force mostly white.

He described the stories as fairly compelling, and said they included incidents of “traffic stops, revenue raising on the basis of traffic stops and traffic stops that occurred in certain parts of the area.”

He added that the investigation could expand to other St. Louis County police departments if similar conduct is found. Holder noted that St. Louis County administers training for officers throughout the area, including Ferguson. “If at any point, we find reason to expand our inquiry to include additional police forces in neighboring jurisdictions, we will not hesitate to do so.”

Since 2009, Holder’s Justice Department has prosecuted more than 300 individual officers and opened 20 investigations into police agencies around the country. It is also enforcing 14 agreements to reform law enforcement policies. In contrast to the small suburb of Ferguson, the large cities that have been targeted include Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Newark, N.J.

But Holder emphasized that although he has opened more than twice as many police reviews as occurred in the last five years of the President George W. Bush administration, the public should not believe that officers in the United States are out of control.

“The vast majority of the people who serve the American people in a law enforcement capacity in this country do so honorably, do so quite well,” he said.

Holder said the St. Louis County police chief has agreed to work with federal officials to implement reforms, especially dealing with racial profiling, searches and frisks, and the handling of mass demonstrations. In the nights that followed Brown’s shooting, county police were sharply criticized for confronting demonstrators with military equipment.

The inquiry into Ferguson’s Police Department is separate from the ongoing criminal investigation into whether Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, violated the civil rights of Brown, who was black, or used excessive force. The killing touched off nearly two weeks of protests.

The incident began when Wilson told Brown to stop walking in the street, and ended with Brown dead. Witnesses say that Brown had raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, but Wilson has reportedly told investigators that Brown tried to rush toward him. Autopsies have found that Brown, 18, had at least six bullet wounds, including one on the top of his head.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said the department welcomed the new 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,” he said.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar also welcomed the review, saying: “The most effective way to ensure we adhere to our own rigorous standards of performance is to have an objective party review our operations on a regular basis. I welcome any process that improves the department.”

The acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Molly Moran, said the investigation would focus on four key areas.

“One is going to be the use of force, excessive use of force,” she said. “The second is going to be the stops, searches and arrests. We are also going to be looking at the manner in which the Ferguson police treat detainees in the Ferguson city jail. And we’ll also just be looking at discriminatory policing generally.”

Compared with the federal criminal inquiry into Wilson, the investigation into police practices has an easier legal path. The racial disparity between Ferguson’s citizens and its police, as well as the troubled relations between them, could be enough to justify a court injunction or settlement under which Ferguson would be required to change its hiring, training or other practices.

Proving a criminal violation of civil rights carries a higher standard.

Asked about the department’s inquiry into the 2012 Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin, Holder said investigators are still working on it. “There are active steps that we are still in the process of taking,” he said. “There are witnesses who we want to speak to as a result of some recent developments. So that matter is still underway.”

For more news about the Justice Department and federal law enforcement, follow @RickSerranoLAT and @TimPhelpsLAT