Skip to main content

Feds launch probe of Ferguson police department

By Shimon Prokupecz, Pamela Brown and Greg Botelho, CNN
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 2344 GMT (0744 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Investigation will look at the department's use of force
  • It will also assess stops, searches and arrests
  • Analyst: Probe is "very serious," can lead to "virtual federal takeover" of police
  • It is distinct from another federal probe that's specific to Michael Brown's shooting

(CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday a Justice Department investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, which has come under fire for its past practices in the uproar over the shooting of Michael Brown.

Holder spoke about his recent trip to the area and about conversations he had with its residents.

"People consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices and from the lack of diversity on the Ferguson police force. These anecdotal accounts underscore the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson that has received a good deal of attention," Holder told reporters.

Ferguson police under investigation

"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," he said.

Such probes typically focus on paving the way for systemic reform going forward, rather than punishing misconduct from the past, said CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Can Ferguson move past Brown shooting?
Sen. McCaskill pushes use of body cams
Clinton on Ferguson: 'We can do better'
Camden police a model to the nation?
Officer resigns after Ferguson incident

Nonetheless, they can produce significant changes within a department.

"It's very serious," Toobin said of the investigation, before it was formally announced, "because it can lead to a virtual federal takeover of the police, as happened recently in New Orleans."

It is distinct from the Justice Department's previously announced civil rights probe that is specific to the August 9 shooting of Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. Proving a civil rights violation would require showing that Wilson was actively hostile to Brown because of his race.

The shooting and the fact authorities didn't immediately, and still haven't, charged Wilson spurred emotional and, at times, violent protests on the streets of Ferguson.

Dozens were arrested over those tense few weeks, which were sometimes marred by looting and clashes between protesters and law enforcement.

Brown's shooting also stirred up locals' gripes about Ferguson police over the years. Some of them said members of the predominantly white police force would routinely and inordinately single out African-Americans, who make up two-thirds of the St. Louis suburb's population.

Residents: Police have 'a power trip problem'

Many African-Americans said that they often found themselves subject to racial profiling -- such as being pulled over for no obvious reason besides, they presumed, "DWB," or driving while black.

Some white residents complained police have acted in a heavy-handed fashion.

Chief Tom Jackson has said the claim that officers are more likely to stop blacks is more perception than reality.

Other cases, though, went well beyond that.

The family of Jason Moore recently filed a lawsuit accusing police of excessive force, saying he died of cardiac arrest on September 17, 2011, after police fired Tasers at him.

The family says that Moore, who they say suffered a psychological disorder, was walking around naked and posed no threat to police.

It's not clear which cases, specifically, the new federal investigation will examine. The probe will not focus on law enforcement's response to Brown-related protests, since that effort involved numerous agencies and Ferguson did not lead this multi-agency effort.

$40 million lawsuit slams police actions during protests

Ferguson is be the latest of many local police and sheriff departments nationwide to be subject to such a federal investigation, which Toobin explains are launched "when there are persistent allegations of misconduct."

This April, for instance, the Justice Department lambasted police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for what it characterized as a longstanding history of police brutality and unnecessary deadly force, sometimes "in an unconstitutional manner." The report laid out several measures to address the problems, such as changing policies, training procedures and recruitment protocol.

Report: Albuquerque police have 'pattern' of excessive, deadly force

Police departments in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and elsewhere have agreed to Justice Department plans to address controversial policies and patterns of alleged misconduct.

But nowhere has the federal agency come down harder than on the New Orleans police department, which has been plagued for years by allegations of corruption, excessive use of force, illegal searches and widespread racial discrimination.

In July 2012, Holder detailed a consent decree -- which he called the most wide-ranging such agreement in U.S. history -- that includes more than 100 recommendations dealing with virtually every aspect of the department.

Feds, New Orleans police agree on overhaul

CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Follow our complete coverage of the protests and aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
The grand jury in the case of Michael Brown's shooting heard from witnesses who couldn't be believed at all.
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0212 GMT (1012 HKT)
Their sons have become symbols of a raging national conversation about police brutality and racial injustice.
December 8, 2014 -- Updated 2330 GMT (0730 HKT)
Charles Barkley -- who once said he doesn't create controversies, he just brings them to our attention -- is at it again.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
It's the picture we needed to see after a week like this.
November 30, 2014 -- Updated 1807 GMT (0207 HKT)
The resignation comes five days after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for killing Michael Brown.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 0100 GMT (0900 HKT)
Did Officer Wilson shoot Michael Brown dead as he staggered to the ground, hobbled by gunshot wounds? Or, did the 18-year-old aggressively charge at Wilson?
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 0059 GMT (0859 HKT)
Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson said that he's not tormented by that fateful encounter in suburban St. Louis last summer.
News about the grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson spread quickly nationwide, spurring spontaneous rallies. See a collection of reactions from across the country.
If you are in Ferguson or have witnessed protests where you live, share your story with CNN. Personal essays and video commentary are also welcome.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
Transcripts of testimony that jurors heard considering Michael Brown's death have been released to the public.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
Photos of Officer Wilson taken after his altercation with Michael Brown have been released.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
His mother ran down the street, tears streaming down her face. His father said he was "devastated."
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
All eyes and ears were on St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch when he announced there would be no indictment.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
As tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, have bubbled, one official after another has taken the lead, grappling to figure out how to stop it from coming to a boil.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
See images of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
"He was funny, silly. He would make you laugh. He'd bring people back together," his father, Michael Brown Sr., told reporters.
ADVERTISEMENT