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Holder Says Ferguson Probe Will Look For Source Of Police Mistrust

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Justice Department's civil rights division will launch a broad civil rights investigation in the Ferguson, Mo., police department.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Justice Department's civil rights division will launch a broad civil rights investigation in the Ferguson, Mo., police department.

The Justice Department has launched a broad investigation into the actions of police in Ferguson, Mo. A white police officer there shot an unarmed 18-year-old black man last month, touching off protests and episodes of violence.

Attorney General Eric Holder says he's taking a closer look to get to the bottom of deep mistrust of local police.

"Our investigation will assess the police department's use of force, including deadly force. It will analyze stops, searches and arrests. And it will examine the treatment of individuals detained at Ferguson's city jail," Holder said Thursday.

Civil rights investigators are just beginning to gather evidence in Ferguson, looking at possible violations of the Constitution or other federal laws.

The investigation is likely to last for months, and it could result in a court-enforceable agreement to improve things like hiring and training of law enforcement in Ferguson.

Police chief Thomas Jackson told NBC News he'll cooperate with federal investigators. "In the end, the Justice Department is going to try to improve the quality of policing nationwide. I mean, that's their job, part of their job, this section. So I welcome that. Anything we can do here to improve what we're doing, is good," he said.

A lawyer for the family of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot by police last month, says he's encouraged by the Justice Department announcement. Promoting transparency in law enforcement, the lawyer says, is the only way to rebuild trust in the community.

The attorney general said eventually, his investigation could expand: "We will follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead, and 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."

That includes the St. Louis County police. Officers there sometimes deployed tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters angered by Brown's death. But for now, officials at the U.S. Justice Department are working to help county police with crowd control techniques and other training.

The idea is that county police can go on to train cops from all over the greater St. Louis area. So working with them could have a multiplier effect.

Over the past five years, Holder said, the Justice Department has prosecuted 300 individual officers for misconduct.

It has investigated 20 other police departments for patterns or practices of legal violations.

For the nation's first black attorney general, the long and sometimes troubled history between police and minority communities can be personal.

"I want to make clear I think the vast majority of people who are in law enforcement, the vast majority of police departments, do their job in a way that we would expect. But to the extent there are problems, I think we as a society need to have the guts to say we're going to identify this as a problem, this is a deficiency in our country, and we're going to make it better," he said.

In Ferguson, he said, this investigation could represent one of those moments.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.