Ferguson shooting: US Justice Department to probe for discriminatory policing

US Department of Justice to announce investigation into patterns of civil rights violations in policing in Ferguson, Mo., and other St. Louis counties, including use of excessive force and racial profiling.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Mo., Aug. 20.

The Justice Department is expected to announce a sweeping civil rights investigation into reports of discriminatory policing in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday, sources say.

The probe is expected to delve into department practices over the past several years, two federal law-enforcement officials told The Washington Post Wednesday night.

The announcement comes just one day after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) lifted a state of emergency that had been in place since tense and sometimes violent protests erupted in the streets of the St. Louis suburb after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

The Justice Department has already initiated a specific inquiry into the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. That inquiry aims to determine whether the police officer violated Brown's civil rights.

However, the second investigation will likely be more sweeping and could include other police forces in the St. Louis area, sources told The Post. This larger probe would look into whether police policy or practices produced a pattern of civil rights violations, such as use of excessive force or racial profiling.

In the month since the shooting, Michael Brown has become a national symbol of discriminatory policing in the United States. Members of the predominantly black Ferguson community say that they have endured routine harassment from the overwhelmingly white police force for years, a complaint echoed by many minority communities around the country.

The investigation will likely examine any patterns of discriminatory policing in traffic stops, arrests, and use of force.

Concerns about racial profiling prompted the Missouri state legislature to pass a law in 2000 that requires police officers to record the race of every driver involved in a vehicle stop and to report that data annually to the state attorney general, who in turn submits an annual vehicle stops report to the governor. Those reports indicate that traffic stops across the entire state have disproportionately and consistently targeted black drivers every year since 2000.

Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson told The New York Times that he would welcome the investigation.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to become a professional police department and a professional city,” he told the Times. “We have no intentional policies or procedures which discriminated or violated civil rights. But if we have anything there which may unintentionally do that, we need to know about it.”

Conflicting witness accounts and a dearth of concrete information about the encounter between Brown and Officer Wilson fueled tensions between law enforcement and outraged citizens during nearly two weeks of clashes in the streets.

The Ferguson Police Department has since outfitted officers with body cameras to document interactions between law enforcement and citizens. The department had reportedly received a grant to equip patrol cars with dashboard cameras prior to the incident, but had not yet installed the cameras.

The Washington Post reports that the Justice Department has opened at least 35 police department reviews for constitutional violations since President Obama appointed Eric Holder as the nation's first black US attorney general in 2009. That's twice the number of civil rights investigations launched by his predecessors.

Such investigations are not considered criminal probes. They can be collaborative and typically result in extensive recommendations for changes in policy and practice. Those recommendations are not usually legally binding, but can become mandatory through an agreement known as a consent decree.

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