The U.S. Justice Department is starting a civil-rights investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department to examine the practices that led to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager last month.
The civil probe is separate from the local and federal investigations into the shooting death of Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a Ferguson officer last month. The Justice Department will look at the department’s training, operating procedures and other patterns and practices.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the new probe stems from conversations he had with local residents during a recent trip to Ferguson. He said “deep mistrust” existed between residents in the St. Louis suburb and the police.
“People consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices, and from the lack of diversity on Ferguson’s police force,” Holder said at a news conference in Washington.
The Justice Department also announced an initiative to work with the St. Louis County Police Department in what Holder said was a “collaborative reform effort.” That review will include alleged use of racial profiling and the department’s handling of demonstrations, Holder said.
The killing of Brown, 18, on Aug. 9 and subsequent images of police, backed by armored vehicles, leveling guns at demonstrators have made the city of 21,000 a symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed law enforcement. Ferguson is almost 70 percent black, yet all but one councilman and three of 53 police officers are white.
Antonio French, a black alderman in St. Louis who attended the protests and was arrested last month by police in riot gear, welcomed the federal investigation.
“It will go a long way to helping to restore a broken trust between the community and the local police department,” French said. “There are so many of these small departments and there doesn’t seem to be much oversight.”
The investigation will focus on the Ferguson Police Department’s use of force, including deadly force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and treatment of detainees inside Ferguson’s city jail, according to a Justice Department statement.
Under Holder, the Justice Department’s civil-rights division has increased its investigations into the actions of local police forces, including probes into the Newark, New Jersey, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, departments.
Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old police officer, shot Brown at least six times, according to an independent autopsy released by the victim’s family last month. Police said Brown attacked Wilson, while some residents said Brown was shot after raising his hands in surrender.
The decision to pursue a federal investigation marks an expansion of the Justice Department role in the review of the Ferguson case. The department’s civil-rights division and the FBI are weeks into their look at whether charges are merited in the shooting of Brown. At one point, more than 40 FBI agents were on the ground in Ferguson working on the case.
The investigations into police departments offer federal officials a tool to direct changes in jurisdictions they traditionally don’t oversee. The probes have resulted in agreements that allow court monitoring of departments, shifts in tactics and tighter rules for department leadership.
A July agreement between the Justice Department and Newark came after federal officials reviewed thousands of documents and conducted interviews with officers, supervisors, city officials and community leaders, the department said at the time. The terms of the agreement in that case included new training and the development of a new accountability-based system within the department.
The federal investigation follows Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s decision yesterday to lift the state of emergency in Ferguson. Nixon, a 58-year-old Democrat, called for the state of emergency on Aug. 16, after protests led to rioting and looting.
Phone calls and an e-mail sent to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson weren’t immediately returned.