The Justice Department is expected to announce Thursday that it will open a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department in the wake of the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old black man that touched off weeks of unrest.
The new civil rights investigation will be in addition to the federal criminal probe already underway as to whether Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, violated Michael Brown’s civil rights or used excessive force after a confrontation between the men Aug. 9.
The incident began when Wilson told Brown to stop walking in the street, and ended with Brown lying dead there for more than four hours. Some witnesses have said he was shot with his hands up as he tried to surrender. Wilson has reportedly said Brown was rushing at him.
Two autopsies have found that Brown had at least six bullet wounds, including one on the top of his head.
The killing touched off weeks of community unrest in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis with a predominantly white police force.
Law enforcement officials confirmed the upcoming Justice Department announcement on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson wrote in a statement that the department welcomes the investigation.
“Over the past few weeks we have hosted and participated in several meetings with the DOJ 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 wrote.
The investigation of Ferguson’s police, first reported by the Washington Post, is not out of character for Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who has aggressively investigated police departments across the country over the last five years.
Since 2009, his department has brought 33 legal actions against departments for their policies or alleged abuse, including in Albuquerque, N.M., and Newark, N.J. So far, 16 cases have yielded rulings or settlements resulting in reforms.
To file criminal charges against Wilson, the Justice Department would have to show an alleged racial motive or that Wilson used force disproportionate to the situation -- both difficult in a situation with conflicting witness testimony.
But the racial disparity between Ferguson’s citizenry and its police, as well as the troubled relations between them, could be enough to justify a federal investigation. The police department has a history of lawsuits accusing it of excessive force, the Washington Post has reported.
A St. Louis County grand jury is hearing evidence on the shooting, but no decision is expected before October.
Holder has already shown a strong interest in the case, taking the unusual step of traveling personally to Ferguson to meet with the Brown family. Last month, he ordered the federal probe into the shooting, as well as a federal autopsy. The family also authorized a private autopsy. Local officials also performed one, but no details have been released.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who served as a citizen journalist during the unrest, had not heard about the probe Wednesday night, but he lauded the idea.
“This is a good move. It’s needed right now,” French said. “We need action to restore the faith among the community and local governments. The Justice Department’s involvement in looking into the practices of local police departments is a step this community has needed to see for some time.”
Times staff writer Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles contributed to this report.