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Protests continue as Holder pushes new steps on police shootings

As activists sought to keep attention focused on the fight for police reform, Attorney General Eric Holder called for improved data on police shootings.
Signs are seen before a protest against police violence towards minorities in New York, N.Y. on Jan. 15, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Signs are seen before a protest against police violence towards minorities in New York, N.Y. on Jan. 15, 2015.

As protesters from Boston to south Florida sought Thursday to keep attention focused on the fight for police and criminal justice reform, the Obama administration continued to signal its openness to the movement’s concerns.

Attorney General Eric Holder highlighted the need for better data on police shootings—as well as shootings of officers—before hosting a round-table event in Philadelphia aimed at building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Hours earlier, protesters blocked a busy Boston highway during the morning rush hour. And in Fort Lauderdale, Florida they threatened mass civil disobedience and demanded a meeting with state leaders.

RELATED: What will come out of Ferguson?

The flurry of events Thursday offered a reminder that the activists behind the Black Lives Matter movement, who have mostly been out of the headlines since the start of the year, have no intention of easing up. And that those in charge are eager to show they’re listening.

In a speech Thursday morning at the Justice Department in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Holder said the lack of information on police shootings is hampering government's ability to address the issue. 

"The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said. “This strikes many—including me—as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.”

"It is incumbent upon all of us to protect both the safety of our police officers and the rights and well-being of all of our citizens,” Holder added.

Better data on police shootings has been one of several key demands pushed by the movement that has sprung up since last summer in response to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in Staten Island; and several other unarmed black men or boys. The news that neither of the police officers responsible for those deaths would be charged added fuel to the fire and set off nationwide protests in recent months.

Holder, who has announced his intention to step down as attorney general once a successor is confirmed, also sought to push back against some conservatives who have portrayed the administration as anti-police.

“[Law-enforcement officers] are true American heroes – whose patriotism, integrity and commitment to the highest standards of excellence are simply beyond question,” Holder said. “I know this. And I have been troubled and deeply disturbed by recent mischaracterizations of this administration’s regard for those who wear the badge.”

For their part, protesters have vowed to make 2015 a “year of action.” On Thursday, activists chained themselves to concrete barrels to shut down I-93 in both directions during Boston’s morning rush hour, causing miles-long backups. Twenty-nine people in all were arrested.

The goal, said Megan Collins, a leader of the action, was to focus the attention of the city’s predominantly white commuters on local law enforcement’s treatment of minorities, and to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The group released a list of people of color who have been killed by police in the area.

Collins called Boston “a deeply segregated city where blacks are unfairly over-policed and brutalized.”

RELATED: 2014: The year of Michael Brown

At the other end of the East Coast, Black Lives Matter activists gathered on the steps of Fort Lauderdale’s City Hall to voice their demands—among them an end to racial profiling, and training to help police peacefully de-escalate conflicts. Threatening mass civil disobedience, they demanded a meeting with Republican Gov. Rick Scott and other state leaders. A “Florida March for Justice” is planned for Saturday.

Later Thursday, Holder sat down at the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia with Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Chief Charles Ramsey, as well as community and student leaders. It was the latest in a series of discussions the attorney general has been holding around the country focused on easing police-community tensions. 

"It is incumbent upon all of us to protect both the safety of our police officers and the rights and well-being of all of our citizens."'

The White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was announced last month, has a similar goal. Co-chaired by Ramsey, it held its first public “listening session” Tuesday in Washington, D.C. It’s due to issue a report to President Obama by March. A separate panel appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to look into the underlying causes of the unrest in Ferguson will issue its own report in September.

Legal efforts around the deaths of Brown and Garner continue. Civil rights groups have filed ethics charges against St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, whom they have accused of failing to push for an indictment of the officer in the Brown shooting. And several organizations are asking a court to release information about the grand jury proceedings in the Garner case.

Meanwhile, some activists are shifting their attention to the investigation into the shooting by a Cleveland police officer of Tamir Rice, 12, in November. Earlier this month, the city turned over the probe to the county sheriff’s office, which will forward its findings to prosecutors.