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Justice Department clears Darren Wilson in Michael Brown killing

Updated

The Department of Justice on Wednesday cleared former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson of committing any civil rights violations in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown Jr.

The decision comes six months after Wilson shot an unarmed Brown dead, sparking massive outcry and galvanizing activists nationwide who have since called for an end to police brutality generally, and specifically, the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police.

Michael Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference. “The report we have issued and the steps we have taken are only the beginning of a necessarily resource-intensive and inclusive process to promote reconciliation, to reduce and eliminate bias and to bridge gaps and build understanding,” Holder added.

While Holder said there was not enough evidence to indict Wilson, he said a pattern of intentional, egregious violations by members of the Ferguson police department created a toxic, incendiary environment, perfect for the firestorm that followed Brown’s death. Holder said the universe in which Wilson and Brown’s lives fatally collided was one rife with distrust, of broad police abuses, and a system where local authorities put profit over public safety.

“Michael Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson.”
Attorney General Eric Holder
The violence that came on the heels of the killing was not justifiable, Holder said, but in context he said, “amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”

Earlier in the day, Michael Brown’s family and legal team met with DOJ officials who broke the news that their son’s killer would not face any charges in his death.

“Today we received disappointing news from the Department of Justice that the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions,” Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., said in a statement. “While we are saddened by this decision, we are encouraged that the DOJ will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color.”

It is the family’s hope, they continued, that true change will come not only to Ferguson but the entire country. “If that change happens, our son’s death will not have been in vain,” they said.

The DOJ’s announcement comes a day after it released a scathing summary report following a months-long investigation into the Ferguson police force which found the department engaged in a broad pattern of conduct that routinely violated federal law and the constitutional rights of African-Americans.

RELATED: 11 alarming findings in the report on Ferguson police

On Wednesday, the DOJ followed up with an 80-plus page report that includes “evidence from witnesses, the autopsies and physical evidence from the analysis of the DNA, blood, shooting scene and ballistics. The report also explains the law as developed by the federal courts and applies that law to the evidence.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that “there was a tragedy that occurred in Ferguson.” “People, even if they have pretty divergent views of what took place would acknowledge that the taking of this young life was a tragedy,” he added.

A grand jury in St. Louis County in late November declined to indict Wilson in Brown’s death.

And while there had been little expectation that the Justice Department would file federal civil rights charges against Wilson – as the bar for such charges is set extremely high – the finding that the police department operated under a system that consistently violated federal law and the rights of African-Americans validated what many on the ground had been saying since the summer. But the news did little to assuage those who believe true justice would have to come in the form of an indictment or at least some form of punitive action by the federal government to force change in a police culture they say is rotten to the core.

“Nothing happened that we didn’t expect to happen,” said Montague Simmons, president of the Organization for Black Struggle. “But I’m not willing to close this chapter at this point. What has played out is consistent with what we’ve seen before. It’s a lack of will on the part to the [government] to really dismantle this blue wall that continues to insulate police from being held accountable.”

RELATED: Michael Brown’s parents to meet with DOJ Officials

Tori Russell, part of a collection of activists who organized around justice for Brown since the days after he was killed on Aug. 9, said the DOJ’s report on the Ferguson police department’s biased policing doesn’t jibe with the clearing of Wilson on civil rights charges. “They’re trying to throw us a bone because we’ve been saying the police were racist, then it only took them 100-plus days to actual make a statement acknowledging that they were being racist,” Russell said.

“I find it strange that the Justice Department has been found to be operating with racial bias and that their stops and arrests are racially biased. But there are no civil rights charges against Darren Wilson. That sounds like the direct definition of a civil rights violation to me.”

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Brendan Roediger, a professor of law at St. Louis University said that from a personal and legal perspective, he’s disappointed in the DOJ’s decision. “I know that Holder believes the standard is too difficult to meet, but in the end it comes down to the fact that an unarmed young man was shot dead in the street and we know this police department not only knowingly engaged in discriminatory practices but encouraged a culture of racism,” Roediger said. “The end result of that culture of racism was an unarmed man shot dead in the street should be sufficient to file charges.”

The DOJ findings on the Ferguson Police Department include the following: (1) a pattern and practice of disproportionate stops and arrests of blacks without probable cause, (2) unreasonable force, (3) racially biased handling of warrants by municipal courts, and (4) a pattern of focusing on revenue over public safety that violated the rights of poor, black residents.

RELATED: Slow crawl toward justice for broken-hearted families

As part of the investigation, federal investigators also uncovered email evidence of further racial bias and stereotyping both by members of the Ferguson police department and municipal court officials. The email evidence includes racist jokes, one that referenced President Barack Obama and another that referred to a refund a black woman received for an abortion as a credit from “Crimestoppers.” 

The disparities in treatment of African-Americans by police were staggering, according to the report. Blacks comprise about 67% of the population in Ferguson but account for 88% of those involved in incidents of use of force by police. They account for 93% of total arrests and are twice as likely to be stopped by police as their white counterparts, though whites were found to be 26% more likely to be found with illegal contraband.

The report also noted that the city and municipal courts essentially used the arrest of blacks, fines and frivolous warrants to balance the city’s budget. Since 2010, the local court has collected more revenue for “failure to appear in court” charges than any other charge, according to the report. The court collected $442,901 in fines for such violations, accounting for nearly 25% of total court revenue that year.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson, said she is trying to craft legislation to remedy some of the many policy problems brought to light in the Ferguson investigations. “It’s unfortunate, but part of the problem is our statutes are out of line with many of these cases,” said Nadal, who has called for the firing of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, Mayor Jeffrey Knowles III, among others. “There has been a disconnect from what’s happening on the streets versus what’s happening in our state capital,” she said. “We’re all going to have to figure out how we’re going to promote change on the local, county and state level.”

RELATED: Holder outlines damning report of racial bias by Ferguson police

When Holder was tapped by President Obama to be the nation’s first black Attorney General, Holder said that civil rights would be a focus of his tenure. During the height of tension in Ferguson after Brown’s death, Holder visited the city and met with local leaders, community groups and students. He promised a full and hearty investigation and reminded the public that while he is the attorney general of the United States, he is also a black man.

But with no federal charges against Wilson, despite his hammering of the deeply troubled police department, some might see Holder’s actions in Ferguson mixed at best. Still, Holder has been clear that his objective was a fair and thorough investigation, not an investigation that would yield any particular outcome. On Wednesday, Holder said that that the conclusion the department represents “the sound, considered and independent judgment” of the expert career prosecutors. “The promise I made when I went to Ferguson and at the time that we launched our investigation was not that we would arrive at a particular outcome, but rather that we would pursue the facts, wherever they led,” Holder said.

The bar for federal charges is terribly hard to reach, a fact Holder allowed as recently as this month when he told msnbc host Melissa Harris-Perry that  the bar was “too high.”

In a press conference following Holder’s speech, members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a press conference in which members said the problems detailed in the Department of Justice report were deep rooted and painful.

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Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri called the report “an important step forward” in achieving equal justice under the law in Ferguson and that its implications extend far beyond Ferguson’s city limits. “The disturbing findings in this report require urgent remedy, implemented without obstruction or delay,” Clay said. “While I’m extremely disappointed Mike Brown’s killer will not face criminal charges, his death has forced our nation to begin a long overdue conversation on race and the disparities it continues to perpetuate for too many Americans.”  

Holder called for deep changes within the Ferguson police department and vowed the Justice Department’s full breadth of resources and leverage to see that it happened, adding that the DOJ’s efforts will also go beyond Ferguson and into neighboring municipalities. “Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it’s time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action,” he said, adding that the DOJ “reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change.” “Nothing is off the table,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brown’s parents are wrestling with the reality that perhaps their last best chance at justice for their son has closed with the end of the DOJ’s investigation. “The family is of course not happy and not satisfied with the outcome and I think that the attorneys and myself raised a number of different questions that we still want to get some answers to,” Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP, who was in the meeting with the family, told msnbc. “Nobody was happy with what has happened.”

Black Lives Matter, Darren Wilson, Ferguson, Michael Brown and Police Brutality

Justice Department clears Darren Wilson in Michael Brown killing

Updated