Tragedy in Ferguson: What the Justice Department can do next

By William Yeomans
August 25, 2014

Protesters walk through smoke as police clear a street after the passing of a midnight curfew meant to stem ongoing demonstrations in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, in FergusonThe tragic killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson has brought to the surface long-simmering tensions between the Ferguson Police Department and the Missouri community it serves. In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, the focus has been on whether Wilson will be prosecuted criminally and convicted for the shooting. In the longer term, however, the focus must ultimately turn to a broader agenda, including substantial reforms in the Ferguson Police Department if it is to regain the full trust and confidence of the community.

After Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to the St. Louis suburb on Wednesday, he vowed that the Justice Department would stay involved to help heal the relationship between the police department and the public.  While many of the essential facts of the encounter between Brown and Wilson remain unknown, we do know that criminal convictions of police officers for shooting people are few and far between. The killing of Brown may turn out to be the rare incident that results in a criminal conviction by state or federal prosecutors, but statistics suggest that outcome is unlikely.

So what more can Holder and the Justice Department do?  Fortunately, whatever the outcome of the criminal process, they still have important tools at their disposal.

Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in FlorrissantOne crucial order of business will be to identify any credible allegations that the Ferguson Police Department used excessive force or other unconstitutional practices in responding to the demonstrations. The department’s frightening display of heavy weaponry established that it overreacted to peaceful protests, as did its heavy-handed treatment of the press.  It will be essential to launch investigations into the credible allegations and pursue criminal prosecutions if any are appropriate.

The collection of these incidents, as well as incidents in the relatively recent past, will serve a second purpose. The attorney general has authority to investigate and file suit against a police department that has engaged in a pattern of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal laws. The investigation leading to such a suit can include an in-depth examination of the Ferguson Police Department’s use of force, its conduct in searches, surveillance and making arrests (including allegations of racial profiling and other bias) and its procedures for training, supervising and disciplining officers.

In Ferguson, the investigation will have to include the police department’s interference with the First Amendment rights of the press. The Justice Department will likely need to bring in experts familiar with policing practices to identify problems and offer solutions that will help the Ferguson police promote transparency and build bonds with the community.

A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer carries young children in Ferguson, MissouriUltimately, the Justice Department and the police department will enter negotiations to resolve the problem. If they cannot agree, the case will go to trial. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, they reach a settlement — sometimes through a court decree that remains enforceable until the judge agrees that the unconstitutional conditions have been fixed.

In addition, the attorney general has authority to conduct an investigation of the police department’s hiring practices. These practices have produced and maintained a nearly all-white police force in a community that is majority African-American. Hiring practices that produce such a stark racial disparity violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — unless they are required by business necessity. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and private litigants have enforced the act to help in desegregating a number of large metropolitan police forces, as well as smaller ones such as Ferguson.

Such an investigation can examine whether Ferguson relies on written tests or other instruments that disproportionately exclude minority applicants and are not sufficiently related to job performance.  It can also explore whether the police department’s recruitment is inclusive and reaches a sufficiently broad labor market, as well as whether there are other hurdles in the hiring process that disfavor minority applicants.  A lawsuit can result in restructuring of the hiring procedures and, if necessary, court supervision of changes.

It is time for the Civil Rights Division to amp up its enforcement activity, beginning with Ferguson. It then needs to scrutinize suburban towns like Ferguson, in which African-American migration from inner cities has created majority African-American jurisdictions, though the institutions of power and sources of municipal employment have continued to be dominated by whites.

Michael Brown's family listens during a rally convened in reaction to the shooting of their son, in Ferguson, MissouriYet the racial composition of the Ferguson Police Department is about more than fairness to employment applicants. Experts agree that police forces are more effective when they resemble the communities they police. Diversity on a police force is essential in establishing community bonds to promote communication and trust that lead to more effective investigations, increased success in deterring crime and improved understanding about how to defuse situations that might lead to unnecessary violence.

The disturbing specter of an excessively militarized white police force occupying the streets of a predominantly African-American community in Ferguson drove home this lesson.

Finally, the attorney general must continue to deploy the Community Relations Service to build understanding in the local population.  The Community Relations Service was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an agency in the Justice Department that sends mediators and peacemakers into racially troubled communities. They are not law enforcers. Rather, they try to bridge divisions and get people working together through facilitating dialogue and helping communities put in place structures and relationships for the long term to lessen racial tensions.

This agency has often been neglected and underfunded by Congress. The actions in Ferguson highlight the continuing need for it. Its resources should be increased as the Civil Rights Division’s work spreads to new communities.

The problems revealed by the tragedy in Ferguson are not limited to Ferguson and cannot all be addressed by the Justice Department.  The same tensions that burst into confrontation following the police killing of Brown fester barely beneath the surface in other communities.

Ferguson is a reminder that race continues to matter in our society. The tensions between the African-American community and law enforcement present a powerful rebuttal to those — from Supreme Court justices to politicians at all levels — who would have us deal with our continuing racial tensions by averting our gaze and discussing something else.  We need to embrace continuing efforts to overcome racial discrimination through conversation and action.

The attorney general’s visit to Ferguson and his promise to keep the Justice Department engaged for the long haul was a promising step.


PHOTO (TOP): Protesters walk through smoke as police clear a street after the passing of a midnight curfew meant to stem ongoing demonstrations in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake’s Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Missouri August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool 

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer carries one-year-old Amylah Hunter (L) and two-year-old Amonie Tate (R) back to their family after chatting in Ferguson, Missouri August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Lesley McSpadden (C) and Michael Brown Sr. (L), parents of Michael brown, 18, listen while the family’s attorney Benjamin Crump speaks during a rally convened in reaction to the shooting of their son, in Ferguson, Missouri. August 17, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich


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The issue is that the White House needs to get Holder out of there and back running the DoJ in DC; the White House needs to NOT send those 3 White House reps to the criminal stoned up punk’s funeral. These federal employees have all made an appearance in Ferguson, showing utter disregard for law enforcement community and standards of decency among the law abiding taxpayers around the nation – in order to scoop up votes for the Democratic Party in midterms and in 2016. Mission Accomplished. Everyone ought go home.

Posted by timebandit | Report as abusive

“Such an investigation can examine whether Ferguson relies on written tests or other instruments that disproportionately exclude minority applicants”
So…a black applicant shouldn’t be expected to pass the same tests as a white applicant?

Posted by DavidLogan | Report as abusive

Bill Yeomans,
Who are you? and why are you so honored to have your opinion published by Reuters? I can only guess why. It has been my observation over many, many years that most journalist are clueless how society functions. The great majority of journalist are idealist, socialist, full of self-righteousness. You are probably no exception.
Then you write an article such as this! Maybe you should be writing an article about the “double standard” that prevents police forces from divulging information in support of their police officer. Instead, the media canonizes this 300 lb 6-ft tall man by showing baby pictures and giving ear to his accomplice. Where is your sense of fairness? Eric Holder has no business in this. It is publicity and appeasement 100%. Blacks need to starting stop calling themselves African-Americans and start calling themselves Americans. They themselves promote segregation by attitude and their sense of Entitlement. There is no law that prevents any racial group from joining police forces…unless they are nefarious criminal types. Seems to me that all of Ferguson’s problems start with the people of Ferguson. Do not blame the police force. By they way, if you want to win a fight, do not show up to a gun fight with a knife. Likewise, you cannot suppress a crazy, looting mob with batons

Posted by VinoYcafe | Report as abusive

So, in a few years, they can have an all black community with an all black police force and wallow in the welfare supported slum they create. Satisfied?

Posted by Mark_Steadman | Report as abusive

Let’s just declare Brown a saint and make his birthday a national holiday.

Posted by CMEBARK | Report as abusive

July, 2013 Eric Holder announced a Civil Rights investigation of the Martin-Zimmerman shooting.

November, 2013 Eric Holder announced a report on the investigation would be issued ‘soon’.

August, 2014 the report has not been issued.

Eric Holder is going to do nothing.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately this was media event. Hopefully, his legacy will resound with the parents, convicting them to teach their children not to rob, bully or disrespect authority.

Surely, there are incidents of racial violent, but this wasn’t one of them.

Posted by Thorgood2 | Report as abusive

The American people need to know the entire story. I’ve seen nothing documenting the policeman’s side of the story.
The black community is over the top, and acting like thugs, on an issue that so far has not been proven to be a racial issue.
After the incident, the media immediately headlined, “White cop kills black unarmed teenager”. No facts, just 6 racially biased words.
Now, Holder (who should be in jail) is at the scene to create more hatred toward the white community. There has been an incredible surge of racism generated by the Obama Administration, with super racists like Jackson and Sharpton fanning the flames.

Posted by p19 | Report as abusive

Like that old saying goes…Opinions are like backsides, everybody has one. How about everyone stops with the speculation and opinions that do little more than console 1 side while inciting the other side. Let ALL the facts come out…then we don’t need anyone’s opinion.

Posted by Seriously2016 | Report as abusive

Why don’t they simply give people there the right to vote? Then they can have the government services they choose to have.

Posted by EyeForget | Report as abusive

what happened in Fergusonown that they went from predominantly white to predominantly African American?

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

The reaction in MO along with the racist comments here, p19 et al., are illustrative that we Americans have more to learn about each other, but more importantly, about ourselves. Some of us are absolutely clueless about what we reveal when we spout-off our highly charged emotions. What is setting you off? A police officer filled an unarmed teenager with bullets. OF COURSE there would be an investigation and OF COURSE there would be a need to examine all motives surrounding the incidents occuring in Ferguson. Wake up.

Posted by observing_u | Report as abusive

[…] What can the Department of Justice do about the issues in Ferguson? Not just the killing of Michael Brown but the conduct of Ferguson, St. Louis County and Missouri law enforcement as well? A Reuters piece considers the options: […]

The top down inability to see people of color as individuals shows a deeply rooted racist culture in the Ferguson Police Department that includes their Mayor James Knowles. They will take every possible step to hold on to the power they currently have and fuel the types of comments we see on this page which for the most part read like a rush of racist trolls working to taint rational consideration of facts, humanity or decency. Shame!

Posted by Thirdcloud | Report as abusive

[…] What can the Department of Justice do about the issues in Ferguson? Not just the killing of Michael Brown but the conduct of Ferguson, St. Louis County and Missouri law enforcement as well? A Reuters piece considers the options: […]