“In meetings as well as in listening sessions as well as informal conversations, people consistently express concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices, and from the lack of diversity on the Ferguson police force,” said Holder. “These anecdotal accounts underscore the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson that has received a good deal of attention.
“As a result of this history and following an extensive review of documented allegations and other available data, we have determined that there is cause for the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Ferguson police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the United States Constitution or federal law,” he added.
The investigation will focus on the department’s practices and will be separate from an ongoing federal civil rights probe into the unarmed 18-year-old’s shooting last month.
“This investigation will be carried out by a team from the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation section - some of the same dedicated professionals who have achieved really historic results in ensuring constitutional policing from coast to coast,” Holder said.
The Civil Rights Division has prosecuted more than 300 officers for misconduct over the past five years and opened up “20 pattern or practice investigations into police departments across the country.”
“That’s more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five years,” Holder said. The division is also enforcing “14 agreements to reform law enforcement practices at agencies both large and small.”
“With these agreements, we have seen dramatic decreases in excessive uses of force, greater equity in the delivery of police services, including important measures to address bias, and most significantly, increased confidence by communities in their law enforcement agencies,” he said.
The investigation will focus on “the department’s use of force, including deadly force,” stops, searches, arrests and “treatment of individuals detained at Ferguson’s city jail” as well as “other potentially discriminatory police techniques and tactics that have been brought to light.”
Ferguson’s mayor, city manager and police chief have “welcomed” the investigation, Holder said, and promised “their complete cooperation.”
Holder said the investigation would be “rigorously” conducted and would take place in “a timely manner so we can more forward as expeditiously as possible to restore trust, to rebuild understanding, and to foster cooperation between law enforcement and community members.”
Holder promised to “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.”
Holder recently visited Ferguson, a trip he found “invaluable” to get a “personal” sense of “what the situation was there, by interacting with residents of Ferguson, by speaking to the investigators who were involved in the ongoing investigation.”
“I think that certainly – at least for me – sharpened my own sense of what was going on there and the potential need for that which we are announcing today,” he said, adding that the visit “certainly influenced the decision that we are announcing today.”
When asked whether he was concerned about the timing of the investigation announced Thursday “inappropriately” influencing the grand jury looking into the Brown shooting, Holder said, “One should not draw a connection between what we’re doing today and the matter that the grand jury is in the process of considering, in addition to the fact that we have our own independent investigation going on into the shooting.”
“I think that these are separate matters. I’ve worked with grand juries myself as a prosecutor, and I know that grand juries have the capacity to keep separate those things that should be a part of their consideration, and I’m confident that this will not have an impact on the grand jury process,” he said.
Another investigation that has garnered national attention, that of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, is still ongoing, Holder said.
“There are active steps that we are still in the process of taking. There are witnesses who we want to speak to as the result of some recent developments, so that matter is still underway,” he said.