Feds to Launch New Civil Rights Probe into Ferguson Police Department

Sep 4, 2014 at 10:15 am
click to enlarge Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson releases information about the officer who shot Michael Brown and a related robbery. - Chad Garrison
Chad Garrison
Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson releases information about the officer who shot Michael Brown and a related robbery.

The U.S. Department of Justice will open another civil-rights investigation, this time into the entire operations of the Ferguson Police Department.

Anonymous officials leaked details to national media outlets, first to the Washington Post, on Wednesday about the investigation, which is separate from the department's other civil-rights investigation into the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. The inquiry will focus on the Ferguson Police Department and could expand to other police forces.

The decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to open a wide-reaching investigation signals the most aggressive judicial step yet toward dealing with the underlying tensions that erupted into clashes with police after Brown's death on August 9.

See all Riverfront Times coverage of Michael Brown and Ferguson.

UPDATE, 11:19 a.m.: Here's the statement from Ferguson:

The City of Ferguson and the Ferguson Police Department welcome the Department of Justice and their pending 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.

UPDATE 11:30 a.m.: And here's a statement from Michael Brown's family, via their lawyer Benjamin Crump:

The family of Michael Brown is encouraged that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. We believe that transparency in law enforcement is the only way to build trust in the community, not just in the killing of Michael Brown, but for others who have suffered as well. That is why we are advocating for the use of body cameras for law enforcement around the country. We can't have another young man's life taken amid murky circumstances. We want the truth to shine brightly.

The new investigation, which officials are likely to announce Thursday afternoon, will analyze recent practices of this majority-black city's mostly white police department, including patterns of traffic stops, arrests, use of force, training for officers and more, according to the Associated Press.

For example, federal investigators will look into why black drivers in Ferguson are stopped more frequently than white drivers. A 2013 report from the Missouri attorney general's office says blacks are twice as likely to be pulled over than whites even though they are less likely to have contraband.

See also: Black Drivers Still Get Pulled Over More in Missouri, St. Louis: Attorney General

Five current and one former member of the Ferguson Police Department are facing federal lawsuits for excessive force, according to the Washington Post. The lawsuits claim officers hog-tied a twelve-year-old boy, pistol-whipped children and used a stun gun on a mentally ill man who then died.

If the investigation finds patterns of excessive force and civil-rights violations in Ferguson, the justice department could file a federal lawsuit against Ferguson or agree to a settlement with police there to make changes in the force.

A similar investigation led to the "virtual federal takeover" of the New Orleans police last year and is "very serious," says CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Last year's settlement between the U.S. government and New Orleans led to hundreds of new department policies after an investigation found dysfunction and corruption throughout the police force.

The civil-rights investigation in Ferguson will not affect the criminal investigation against Wilson for shooting Brown. A St. Louis County grand jury is currently hearing evidence that could lead to charges against Wilson.

Correction: This story originally misstated the scope of the investigation. The justice department is looking into Ferguson and could expand into other police departments, including St. Louis County.

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at [email protected].