US attorney launches civil rights investigation into Michael Brown case

Updated

FERGUSON, Missouri—Police Chief Thomas Jackson has landed in what could be described as a nightmare scenario for the head of a largely segregated police department: the racially fraught and inexplicable killing of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a white officer on the Ferguson force.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announced late Wednesday that it would launch a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding Brown’s killing. 

“In conducting the independent federal investigation into whether there were federal civil rights violations, we will be working as much as possible with the local authorities who are determining whether there were any state law violations,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement, adding, “We urge witnesses or individuals with any information related to the incident who have not yet come forward to contact the local FBI office.”

And later, NBC News confirmed that the Ferguson-Florissant School Distict postponed its first day back to school from August 14 until August 18 “in response to concerns expressed by many about continuing unrest in our community,” according to the district’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with msnbc, Jackson said his fear is not of the understandably angry residents, but “the anarchists that are coming in, the people that don’t want healing, the people that just want to continue to fight.”

“Those are the people I’m concerned about,” he said.

In the days since Brown was cut down in a hail of bullets last Saturday, protests – sometimes violent – have spilled over into the streets of this heavily black small city outside St. Louis.

RELATED: Ferguson police use tear gas on protesters, arrest at least 2 reporters

Officers have fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds. Police helicopters have allegedly been fired upon. Officers have reportedly been battered with bricks and bottles. The media and local activists have scrutinized his nearly all-white department’s hiring practices and diversity.

The network of hackers known as Anonymous has launched cyberattacks on the city and local law enforcement agencies. And early on Wednesday morning, an officer shot and critically injured a gunman who allegedly pointed a firearm at police.

Jackson, who has led the Ferguson police department for four years, spoke of his hope for peace and a transparent investigation into Brown’s death, his fears and the understandable criticism of his department’s lack of diversity.

“I want to know the truth,” Jackson told msnbc, describing in detail his efforts since the Brown shooting to secure a fair investigation.

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Jackson held a press conference on Wednesday, curiously at the same time as a peace march nearby. He said the Justice Department and local NAACP are coordinating a meeting between Ferguson police authorities and the Brown family.

“Race relations is a top priority right now,” Jackson said. He later said he was open to guidance on how to improve tensions within the Ferguson community: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

In his interview with msnbc, Jackson said that within minutes of learning of the Brown shooting he had called St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and asked him to take over the case.

“While I was driving to the scene, I was on the phone with the county police chief saying, ‘I don’t want to investigate this at all. I want you to take this from start to finish because I don’t want the appearance of impropriety and I want to make sure that we get a very thorough investigation,’’ Jackson said. “Because what it looks like could be very different from what actually happened. But we won’t know that until somebody else investigates it. Because if I investigate it, you know, we don’t have the trust that we would need for somebody to say yeah, you did a good job. “

Brown’s shooting at the hands of a yet-to-be named officer, identified as a white man by a witness to the shooting who spoke with msnbc, unearthed decades-old tensions between the Ferguson community and the police department, which is 93% white.

Black residents say officers routinely harass them and that and old-boys network has kept the department from hiring more officers of color.

Jackson said that he has worked to improve the diversity of the department and that he has raised the base level of pay for officers, worked to improve equipment and create a welcoming culture to entice black applicants.

He said when he first took the job here after 31 years with the county police, about 10% of department staff were minorities or women. That number has slipped in recent years.

“Whatever we’re doing is not enough. We’re trying but obviously it’s not good enough,” Jackson said on Tuesday night, following a town hall style meeting at a local church, where he joined Gov. Jay Nixon, Ferguson mayor James Knowles and various community leaders in pleading for peace.

“…what it looks like could be very different from what actually happened. But we won’t know that until somebody else investigates it.”
Ferguson, MO Police Chief Thomas Jackson
Meanwhile, as the county police department has assumed control over the investigation, local civil rights groups including branches of the NAACP and Brown’s family have asked federal authorities to intervene. The Justice Department is also involved in the case and a DOJ spokesman told msnbc that the FBI, federal civil rights attorneys, and a team from the Community Relations Service are on the ground observing.

Still, residents believe Jackson’s department is hiding critical evidence and have blasted them for not sharing the shooter’s name or more information on the autopsy performed on Brown’s body.

The preliminary results conducted by the medical examiner revealed Brown’s death was the result of gunshot wounds. Investigators also confirmed that all of the bullets came from the officer’s gun. But police will not specify how many times the teen was shot. Full autopsy results including toxicology are expected in the next four weeks.

On Tuesday, dueling assemblies – one at the Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church attended by local and national black leaders and another across town attended by Jackson and other officials at the Christ the King United Church of Christ – exemplified the divides wedged wide in the wake of Brown’s killing.

The St. Mark’s event was raucous at times with clear demands for justice. The more racially mixed gathering at Christ the King was a somber event, a kumbaya of sorts. “Instead of burning bridges in anger, we must rebuild them with love,” Nixon said.

Mayor Knowles called the killing “senseless.”

The uprising in its aftermath had been “building for years,” Knowles said. “It’s been building in this city and in cities across America.”

Jackson, for his part, sat red-faced on the panel and listened as people spoke of the perils of black males in America, distrust of the police, and efforts to build bridges between races and generations.

He said that he has created a court diversion program for non-violent offenders and has talked with the city and the fire department about creating a mentorship program for minority youth.

“I’ve got a great relationship with our clergy and our local activists and leaders and community organizers and everybody. We meet, we talk,” Jackson said. “But since this has happened they’ve been reaching out to me saying, what can we do to help you move forward because you’re not doing enough. Which is true. I mean I’m trying but, apparently it’s not enough.”

Jackson said the case recalls the early days of the Trayvon Martin case, in which an unarmed teen was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was tried for murder and eventually acquitted. In the immediate aftermath of the case, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was skewered for what many saw as a botched investigation. Lee was eventually removed from the department and later fired.

“I remember watching that and thinking, this is so horrible. I mean, the police chief down there having to deal with something that he probably knew was …” Jackson said, cutting himself off.

Civil Rights, Ferguson, Gun Violence, Michael Brown and Missouri

US attorney launches civil rights investigation into Michael Brown case

Updated