Justice Department to Investigate Ferguson Police Practices

by | September 4, 2014 AT 10:00 AM

By Chuck Raasch

The Justice Department is preparing to announce as early as Thursday that it will expand its investigation of the police shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, into a broader civil rights probe of the practices of the Ferguson Police Department.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said Wednesday night that he had met at Ferguson City Hall with two Department of Justice employees from Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

Knowles said he was surprised that a decision had been made so quickly.

"It's surprising to me that the story was filed less than 1{ hours after I met with them," he said. "They told me they would report their findings to higher-ups and a decision would be made."

"I told them honestly that we're not hiding anything, so if someone wants to look into this, I welcome it," Knowles said. "I have nothing to hide and neither does our city, and we will comply and participate with their investigation. I hope this will restore confidence in our police department and the city government."

"I hope that at some point we'll be able to tell our story and people will listen," Knowles said.

A law enforcement official who has been briefed on the plan confirmed to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday that the investigation will initially focus on Ferguson. The Washington Post first reported on the expanded investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, saying the investigation would also include other St. Louis County jurisdictions. But the law enforcement official who has been briefed on the plan said the civil rights investigation would cover only Ferguson.

The official would not speculate on whether the investigation could broaden to other St. Louis County departments and jurisdictions.

Brown was killed by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. In the aftermath, amid demonstrations, looting and violence erupted. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon eventually called in the Missouri National Guard and the Highway Patrol to help police in the aftermath. On Wednesday, Nixon removed the state of emergency declaration for Ferguson.

Two days after the shooting, the Justice Department announced it would conduct its own investigation, but Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that it would be concurrent with any investigation by local police, not supersede it.

A St. Louis County grand jury has been hearing evidence.

The expansion into a broader civil rights investigation of the practices, procedures and use of force by the Ferguson department would follow a pattern of the Justice Department under Holder.

The Post-Dispatch reported in the wake of the Brown shooting that since 1997, 21 law enforcement agencies around the country _ starting with Pittsburgh and ranging from East Haven, Conn., to Los Angeles _ have signed consent agreements to improve policing after Department of Justice investigations. But the pace of Justice probes into local police departments has accelerated under Holder.

The attorney general visited Ferguson on Aug. 20 and met with Brown's family. He gave no hint then that he would expand the investigation.

"The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now," Holder said then. "This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson."

According to The Washington Post, over his five-plus years as attorney general, Holder has initiated twice the number of civil rights investigations of police departments as any of his predecessors, and that at least 34 departments are now being investigated.

On the same day that Holder announced the department's initial investigation of the shooting, three members of Congress _ including Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo. _ had urged him to broaden it to look for "any pattern or practice of police misconduct by the Ferguson Police Department."

The Aug. 11 letter was also signed by Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.

"Only the federal government has the resources, the experience, and the full independence to give this case the close scrutiny that the citizens of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area deserve," their letter said. "Moreover, to the extent that a pattern or practice of police misconduct may exist, such misconduct would be a clear violation of federal law," including a statute "which makes it unlawful for state or local law enforcement officers to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States."

Clay was unavailable for comment Wednesday night. His spokesman, Steven Engehlardt, said the congressman would wait to comment until after any announcement of an expanded investigation was made.

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