How attorney general hopes to mend relations between police and communities

In the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., protests, US Attorney General Eric Holder has announced a $4.75 million program designed to examine racial bias in law enforcement.

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.

US Attorney General Eric Holder is asking a team of criminal justice researchers to study racial bias in law enforcement in five American cities.

Mr. Holder the program will be funded by a $4.75 million grant that will be used to study racial profiling in police arrests in five US cities over the course of three years.

These cities, which have yet to be identified, will serve as a testing ground for improving relations between police and citizens in communities across the country, he sais.

The program, titled the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, is being implemented following the rioting and civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., last month that stemmed from the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, which launched a national conversation on race and the use of force in law enforcement.

"The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved," Mr. Holder said. 

The program will be headed by law-enforcement experts from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, along with Yale Law School, the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Holder, who traveled to Ferguson during peak periods of unrest, says the program will attempt to gain the pulse of the five cities where the program is being rolled out. The goal, he says, is to foster a sense of community between police and the citizens they're charged with protecting. To that end, researchers will analyze data, interview community residents, and train officers in the hopes of improving "pockets of distrust that show up between law enforcement and the communities that they serve." 

"What I saw in Ferguson confirmed for me that the need for such an effort was pretty clear," Holder said. 

The events in Ferguson also highlighted the racial discrepancies that exist between the Ferguson police force, primarily white, and Ferguson residents, around 70 percent black.

A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general's office found that police in Ferguson detained and arrested black drivers almost twice as often as they did white drivers, even though they were less likely to find contraband in vehicles driven by black drivers. 

In the wake of the protests, the Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into the practices of the Ferguson police department, as well as a separate probe into the shooting of Mr. Brown.

Based on interviews with Brown's family members and investigators working on the case, Holder said he heard repeated grievances about minority families being unfairly treated during routine encounters with the police. 

"The reality is that it certainly had a negative impact on people's view of the effectiveness and fairness of the police department," he said.

  • Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report. 
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