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Scathing DOJ report on Ferguson police imminent

The Department of Justice is expected to release the findings of its investigations into Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown any day now.
Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, \"Hands up, Don't Shoot\", as police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)
Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, \"Hands up, Don't Shoot\", while police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

The Department of Justice is preparing to release the findings of its probes into the shooting death of Michael Brown and allegations of widespread racially biased policing in Ferguson, Missouri.

The release of the department’s final reports, six months after Brown’s killing by a former Ferguson police officer, is expected any day now. Federal officials are expected to meet with city and state leaders on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing investigations.

While it is unlikely that the DOJ will file federal civil rights charges against the former officer, Darren Wilson, given the high bar for such charges, it is more probable that the department could find a pattern and practice of bias policing by the Ferguson police department.

There is evidence that African-American residents are stopped more often than whites. A group of plaintiffs recently filed a federal law suit against the city and the police department claiming the city was essentially running a debtors prison scheme by targeting poor black residents for arrest and holding them until they were able to pay exorbitant fines and fees.

RELATED: Ferguson sued over alleged modern-day debtors’ prison

According to unnamed law enforcement officials who spoke with The New York Times earlier this week, the DOJ’s report is nearly completed and will be highly critical of the department and its use of disproportionate ticketing, arresting and fining black citizens to essentially balance the city’s budget.

The report will offer Ferguson officials an ultimatum: Agree to negotiate a settlement including a federal consent decree with the DOJ or face civil rights charges and a federal lawsuit, according to reports. A federal consent decree would include a federal monitor, ongoing evaluations and a broad set of reforms.

The DOJ’s findings and report will offer, in broad context, the law enforcement environment that fueled animus between the police and Ferguson’s black community, which exploded in violent clashes in the wake of Brown’s death last August.

Jeff Small, a spokesman for the city of Ferguson, told NBC News that city and DOJ officials would be having face-to-face meetings in the St. Louis area on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the impending report. Small said that the city officials were also planning on holding a press conference following the release of the report.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has said the DOJ has kept city officials in the dark about its probe, and he bristled at the use of “cherry-picked statistics” to punish the city.

“I’m interested in finding out, is there an individual officer that we can show participated in discriminatory policing, and if they do, we don’t want them, but I’m not going to accept a broad brush approach with cherry-picked statistics and let you paint our city and our department with that,” Knowles told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

RELATED: Eric Holder signals DOJ investigations in Ferguson winding down

For months, even before the announcement by a grand jury in late November that Wilson would not face charges in Brown’s death, there’d been speculation and rumor that the Ferguson police department would be shaken up or dismantled.

There were reportedly backroom conversations between Justice Department officials and city and state leaders attempting to work out a deal that would change the face of the department, including propositions to dismantle the police department and handover authority to the county police, as well as the removal of embattled Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Wilson.

Wilson resigned shortly after the grand jury’s decision.

Holder has described the need for “wholesale change” in the Ferguson Police Department as evident and “appropriate.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that department is appropriate,” Holder said in October. “Exactly what the form of that change will be, I think, we’ll wait until we complete our inquiry.”

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

Various stakeholders in Ferguson said they were preparing for the release of the DOJ’s report, though they didn't know much more than what's been reported in the news in recent days. 

RELATED: Protests continue as Holder pushes new steps on police shootings

The writing may be on the wall for federal involvement in the city — the state, by its own account, disproportionately stops black motorists. In 2013, the Missouri attorney general’s office released a report that found black motorists were more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts, even though white drivers were more likely found with illegal contraband.

Last week, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder signaled the near conclusion of the department’s report and said that he was “confident” that people will be satisfied with its results.

Holder’s DOJ has been aggressive in going after local law enforcement agencies whose police practices have violated federal civil rights law or have had a disparate impact on racial or religious minority groups.

The Justice Department entered in federal consent decrees with 10 police departments, including forces in major cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, between 1994 and 2009. But since 2010, the Justice Department has opened federal investigations into about 20 police departments.

The consent decree process costs millions and last for several years. It has also been the source of tension between local police departments and their federal overseers.

Last year federal officials with the office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) spent days in Ferguson and the St. Louis area offering training to local police leaders on identifying implicit racial biases and how to weed biased policing out of their departments.

Ron Davis, head of COPS, said similar trainings had been held in other cities gripped by racial tension and strained relations with the police, including in Baltimore and Sanford, Florida, where unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was killed by a former neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.

RELATED: FBI director calls out ‘hard truths’ about race and policing

Davis said that the COPS training is an early intervention ahead of any possible federal action in a given department, and that it is optional but many departments opt to make voluntary changes rather than have them imposed by the Justice Department down the road.

He said the early intervention includes a similar scouring of data as the consent decree would require, including a deep dive into a department’s data on use of force, stop and searches, and racial profiling. The COPS office would then help them identify what’s working, what deficiencies there might be, and come up with findings and evidence based recommendations.

It is unclear what if any action resulted from the COPS training with Ferguson police leaders.

In the wake of Brown’s killing and the peaceful protests, sporadic looting and violent clashes with police that followed, President Barack Obama established the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to focus on improving police and community relations. The group was comprised of law enforcement officials and community leaders from across the country, including a some from the Ferguson area.

The protests in Ferguson eventually spread like wildfire across the nation as protesters demanded an end to the killing of unarmed black men by police and greater accountability for officers who are involved in shooting deaths. The so-called "Black Lives Matter" protests grew as the number of mostly young and unarmed black men killed by police has continued to grow and often their killers have gone unpunished.

On Monday, Obama met with the task force at the White House for a briefing on the group’s lasts report and recommendations.

The Task Force’s report included 59 recommendations, gleaned from seven public listening sessions and testimony from over 100 witnesses over the past 90 days, including a focus on the need for a greater sense of legitimacy of law enforcement, the collection of more data, the expansion of community policing, curbing the militarization of police, and better training on how law enforcement should handle large protests.

“Last year, the events in Ferguson and New York exposed a deep-rooted frustration in many communities of color around the need for fair and just law enforcement,” Obama said on Monday.

“We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported," he added. “We need to seize that opportunity."