Eric Holder, Molly Moran, Ronald Davis

Attorney General Eric Holder, center, accompanied by Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Molly Moran, left, and Ronald Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to announce the Justice Department’s civil rights division will launch a broad civil rights investigation in the Ferguson, Mo.

The Department of Justice has launched a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department following the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teen by White officer last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Sept. 4.

The new investigation is separate from an ongoing federal civil rights investigation probe into the Aug. 9 slaying of Michael Brown, 18, by Officer Darren Wilson.

Since the shooting—the exact circumstances of which differ according to the source—the city of Ferguson has been mired in violence and chaos. Protestors claim the incident is another in a series of racial injustices perpetrated by police officers against African Americans around the nation.

As part of an effort to quell the turmoil and to bring resolution to the situation, Holder visited Ferguson and met with area leaders and residents, who shared stories of their own mistreatment or discrimination at the hands of police.

“I heard from them directly about the deep mistrust that has taken hold between law enforcement officials and members of the community,” Holder said in a statement. “People consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices, and from the lack of diversity on Ferguson’s police force.”

“These anecdotal accounts underscored the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson that has received a good deal of attention,” he continued. “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 U.S. Constitution or federal law.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, right, during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to announce the Justice Department’s civil rights division will launch a broad civil rights investigation in the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department. Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Joining Holder are Molly Moran, left, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division, and Ronald Davis, center, Dir. of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

The new DOJ probe will assess the police department’s use of force, including deadly force.  It will also analyze stops, searches, and arrests, and will examine the treatment of individuals detained at Ferguson’s city jail, in addition to other potentially discriminatory policing techniques and tactics.

Ferguson’s minority residents have long complained of being disproportionately targeted by police for traffic stops. A 2013 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office backed up that claim, showing a major racial disparity in police stops and searches, with African Americans being twice as likely as Whites to be searched and arrested.

Residents of the city also chafe at the imbalance of power. While the city is almost 70 percent Black, there are only three African-American officers on the police department’s 50-member force.

Holder also announced the department is working with the St. Louis County Police Department in a “collaborative reform effort.”  The partnership is led by the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, which is working closely with St. Louis County officials to conduct a comprehensive assessment.

Black leaders and members of the civil rights community praised Holder’s decision to launch a more comprehensive investigation.

“The Justice Department’s decision to initiate a pattern and practice investigation of the Ferguson Missouri Police Department that we previously requested sends a signal that review and relief for substantive complaints about the quality of policing in the community is on the way,” Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) and Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said in a statement. The group previously sent a letter to Holder on Aug. 11 calling for independent DOJ investigations into Brown’s shooting and the allegations of long-running police misconduct.

“The Department’s additional decision to engage the St. Louis County Police Department in the COPS technical assistance program is further evidence of the Attorney General’s commitment to remedy the root causes of the unrest triggered by the tragic shooting of Michael Brown,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO