New federal program aims to build trust between police and communities
Amid the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into last month’s police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a federal initiative Thursday to study racial bias and build trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
Holder cited growing divisions between police and residents as a topic of national importance since the protests in Ferguson, sparked by the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot by a white police officer. Holder said he hoped the program, supported by a $4.75-million grant in five pilot communities, would help defuse future confrontations.
“The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved,” Holder said.
“As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation and a unique opportunity to ensure fairness, eliminate bias, and build community engagement,” he said.
Holder visited Ferguson, a small, predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, soon after Brown’s death. In many of his community meetings there, he said, he was repeatedly told of black residents being harassed by white officers, unfairly targeted for tickets and court orders, and repeatedly slapped with large fines and other penalties.
On Aug. 9, Brown, 18, was killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and the shooting prompted nights of protests and looting. Tempers further flared when police responded to the unrest with military-style vehicles and riot gear.
Witnesses have said Brown raised his hands in an apparent attempt to surrender before he was shot at least six times. Others suggested that Brown might have first tried to struggle with Wilson in an attempt to seize the officer’s gun.
Holder has launched an FBI civil rights investigation into the shooting. Separately, local prosecutors have begun presenting evidence to a St. Louis County grand jury to determine whether Wilson should face state charges in the death.
Local authorities had hoped to wrap up their grand jury investigation by October. But this week, a judge gave the grand jury until Jan. 7 to decide whether to indict Wilson. The prosecuting attorney’s office said the grand jury had begun considering evidence and would probably make a decision well before the January deadline.
Holder’s new program is called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a three-year effort that will start with five as-yet unannounced cities to train police and community leaders.
In addition to new police training, the program will also aim to help communities reduce police bias and ease perceptions of unequal treatment in the court system, both of which surfaced as deep problems in Ferguson. A board of advisors will include national law enforcement officials and faith-based and community leaders.
The effort, Holder said, “represents a major step forward in resolving long-standing tensions in many of America’s communities.”
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