The Justice Department will open a civil rights investigation into policing practices in Ferguson, Mo., Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday. The move marks the Obama Administration’s most forceful step to address racial strife in the mostly African-American St. Louis suburb, where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen on Aug. 9.
Ferguson activists and community leaders say they are welcoming the investigation, saying the practice of racial profiling by police was widespread in the community long before department veteran Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The incident sparked days of protests and a heavy police crackdown.
Holder, who met with community members in Ferguson, said the consistent stories from residents who described systematic police targeting and excessive fines provide "compelling" concerns with the local law enforcement agency's practices.
"I don't think there is any question that there is a basis to begin a pattern of practice investigation," said Holder, adding that he received complete support on the probe from Ferguson's mayor, city manager and police chief. "The fact that we have pledges of local cooperation is an indication that there are issues felt even ... at the local level indicating a need for us to work together to make the situation better."
Ferguson activists and community leaders are embracing the investigation in a city of 20,000 where residents claim police profiling held deep roots in the community long before department veteran Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Residents throughout the county who swap stories of being harassed and fined by local police said they expect federal investigators to uncover a pattern of policing procedures that target the black community.
“They have been legally injured,” state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat who represents sections of St. Louis County, said of the community. “That feeling alone that you have your guaranteed rights as American citizens taken away from you – that is an extreme amount of pain.”
The shooting in Ferguson hit a nerve with community members who have since claimed the city's police department's systematic harassment of residents had grown into day to day life. Protests swelled soon after veteran officer Darren Wilson opened fire on the teen in broad daylight, outraged that his body was left for hours in the middle of the street.
Chappelle-Nadal, who was on the front-lines of the protests last month when she was caught in clouds of tear gas launched by police, said her experiences alone make her certain that DOJ investigators will unearth numerous policing violations against citizens.
"It's almost a month later and I'm still so angry ... these folks here need some kind of resolution to take away that pain and that anger," she said.
The examination into Ferguson’s policing practices will also extend to St. Louis County Police Department, Holder said. It builds on a separate FBI civil rights investigation already underway investigating the fatal shooting and whether Wilson violated the teen's rights when he open fired, shooting him at least six times.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told NBC News’ Ron Allen that he is open to the examination and believes the city and its police department has taken strides in recent years to improve their policies.
“We’ve welcomed anybody to take a look at our actions in the past several years,” Knowles told NBC News. “If the Department of Justice feels that they can shed light on this, we hope that we will have an opportunity to tell our side of the story.”
While acknowledging that his department shared a troubled relationship with the community, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson on Thursday welcomed the federal investigation and pushed back against any negative images plaguing the department after officers were accused of using excessive force against protesters.
“It’s an unfortunate image because we’ve done an excellent job of policing this community and we continue to police the community every day,” Jackson told NBC News’ Ron Allen. “Our relationship with the community is excellent.”
The Justice Department investigation will look at whether the Ferguson Police Department has shown a pattern or practice of violating residents' civil rights. It would likely aim to work out a detailed agreement with the department that would spell out new policies that need to be adopted. The agreement might well be enforceable in court, with a monitor put in place to ensure compliance. An investigation of this kind that was conducted in the wake of the 1992 beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department is credited with helping that department improve its relationship with minority communities.
Sam Bagenstos, a former top official in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, said the investigation might take “months—maybe a lot of months.” He said it will consider not just what officers do out on the street, but whether the department has instituted policies that would help to prevent it.
“If there is a bunch of officers who have used excessive force and there aren’t effective policies of training or screening or monitoring those officers, then that will indicate that there’s likely to be a pattern or practice.”
And Bagenstos added that though it’s being conducted by the civil rights division, it won’t focus solely on racial discrimination.
“In these investigations, racial discrimination is often one of the issues, but it’s almost never the only issue,” said Bagenstos, now a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “Often the most significant issues are excessive use of force in violation of 4th Amendment, and other kinds of police misconduct.”
The Justice Department has already opened at least 20 other investigations into police departments across the country, more than twice as many tas were opened in the previous five years, Holder said. He added that the DOJ is currently enforcing 14 agreements toward policing reform.
"With these agreements, we have seen dramatic decreases in excessive uses of force; greater equity in the delivery of police services, including important measures to address bias; and, most significantly, increased confidence by communities in their law enforcement agencies," Holder said in the press conference Thursday.
On top of the federal investigations, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch is presenting evidence in Brown's shooting to a grand jury, which is expected to wrap up by October.
Ed Magee, chief of staff to McCulloch, said the Department of Justice never gave the county prosecutor’s office a heads up before announcing its civil rights investigation.
“No, they haven’t talked to us about their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department,” Magee said. “We’ve been in contact with them about the shooting of Michael Brown, and nothing else.”
Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Brown family, said they were encouraged by the investigation.
“We believe that transparency in law enforcement is the only way to build trust in the community, not just in the killing of Michael Brown, but for others who have suffered as well,” Crump said in a statement.
The unrest in Ferguson has exposed the stark racial divisions in the city where two-thirds of residents are African-American, yet of the 53 police officers serving on the force, only four are black. The contrast extends to the local government where nearly all elected officials serving the city are white.
Meanwhile poverty and unemployment has placed economic strains on the community in ways that disproportionately affect young African-American men. According to Census data, roughly 14.3% of Ferguson residents are unemployed, far above the 8.5% across Missouri. For men between the age of 18 and 24, unemployment jumps to roughly 47%.
Despite the economic hardships in the town, police conducting minor traffic stops and issuing fines on residents has become a defining marker of the department, community members charge. According to an analysis by ArchCity Defenders, a law firm representing low-income residents in the area, found that fines and court fees made up the second largest source of revenue for Ferguson in 2013, adding up to more than $2.6 million for the city.
“The city is making money off these people’s backs in addition to the tax dollars they pay,” said John Gaskin of the St. Louis County NAACP.
Gaskin said the excessive use of police speed and stoplight cameras, set up in primarily poor and minority neighborhoods, exposed a "systemic problem" that could potentially be corrected under the supervision of the DOJ.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction of rebuilding accountability and a level of trust with the Ferguson Police Department," he said of the federal probe. "People in that community do not trust the people that are supposed to serve and protect them. And that’s a problem.”