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Eric Holder signals DOJ investigations in Ferguson winding down

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said the dual federal civil rights investigations sparked by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson are winding down.
Members of the Ferguson Police department are seen during a rally on Aug. 30, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty)
Members of the Ferguson Police department are seen during a rally on Aug. 30, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

In another sign that the Justice Department’s investigations into the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson Police Department are nearing an end, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said he’s “confident” that he’ll be able to announce their results before he leaves office.

Holder’s departure from the DOJ could be just weeks away and anticipation of the conclusion of the dual investigations that sprung from Brown’s death last summer has been bubbling since November, when a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing.

During a question and answer period following a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Holder said “My hope would be to make these determinations before I go.”

"I'm satisfied with the progress that we have made, and also I'm comfortable saying that I'm going to be able to make those calls before I leave office," Holder said, adding that he was "confident that people will be satisfied with the results that we announce."

That last point could be telling. After a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, angry protesters and rioters took to the streets of Ferguson, some who torched local businesses.

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Shortly after Brown’s killing— as protesters and residents clashed with heavily-armed police, sometimes violently— Holder announced the launch of two separate investigations. One of which would investigate the killing of Brown itself and whether or not Wilson may have violated the unarmed teen’s civil rights and another into the entire Ferguson Police Department based on allegations of widespread police abuses and racially biased policing.

Analysts and legal experts suggest that it is highly unlikely that Wilson will be indicted on federal civil rights charges, given the extremely high bar prosecutors must meet to prove that the officer willfully and knowingly violated Brown’s rights or targeted him because of his race.  

Wilson, who resigned after the grand jury’s decision, is white. Brown is African-American.

But the latter, a finding that the Ferguson police department operated under patterns and practices of discriminatory policing, could be more likely.

Many of the majority-black city’s African-American residents say they’ve been targeted for unfair stops and harassment by the city’s overwhelmingly white police force.

Just last week, around the six-month anniversary of Brown’s killing, a group of 11 plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Ferguson claiming the city essentially operated a debtor’s prison and a scheme involving targeted arrests, fines and fees that filled the city’s jails and coffers.

During a forum in Washington, DC in October, Holder said the need for “wholesale change” in the Ferguson Police Department was evident and “appropriate.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that department is appropriate. Exactly what the form of that change will be, I think, we’ll wait until we complete our inquiry,” Holder said at the time. On Tuesday, Holder said his comments would have no bearing on the final outcome of the DOJ’s investigation into the department.

Holder was also critical of the local police response to the protests in Ferguson, in which police snipers, officers in riot gear and with automatic weapons confronted mostly peaceful protesters.

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“The deployment of at least some of that military hardware in Ferguson exacerbated what was a pretty difficult situation,” Holder said. 

In addition to the wrapping-up of the civil rights investigation into Brown's death, Holder recently said that he hopes to also close the investigation into the 2012 killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was indicted on second-degree murder and other related charges, but was cleared in a jury trial. 

Yet even as Holder's Justice Department is expected to tie a bow on these two high-profile cases, many other similar cases remain open with no clear timetable. 

Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman with the Justice Department, told msnbc this week that civil rights investigations, particularly those involving police killings, are particularly daunting.

“Federal investigations into officer misconduct are among the most challenging and difficult cases to prosecute because the applicable federal statute requires the highest standard of proof in criminal law,” she said. “These are complex investigations that can take considerable time and effort because they require a thorough review of the relevant evidence to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.”