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Holder: DOJ 'work will go on in Ferguson and surrounding municipalities'

Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday attempted to reconcile the contrasting outcomes of two separate Justice Department investigations stemming from the shooting death of Michael Brown -- one that cleared then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death, the other that called Ferguson's police and court system racially biased.

The first, an 87-page report on the shooting itself, concluded that the facts did not support the filing of charges against Officer Darren Wilson.  “Michael Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson,” said Holder.

The report’s conclusion, he said, “represented the sound, considered and independent judgment” of expert, career prosecutors. And as if to erase any doubt on the part of those who might believe otherwise, Holder said that he had personally been briefed on multiple occasions about the findings. 

“I concur with the investigative team’s judgment and the determination about our inability to meet required federal standards.” 

From the day Holder first announced the investigation, he had said that the bar to bring federal civil rights charges against Wilson was very high.

The facts that supported the outcome, said Holder, had been compiled in a “fair and rigorous” investigation that included the canvassing of more than 300 residences and interviews with eye-witnesses and others who claimed to have relevant information. 

He said he knew “that these findings may not be consistent with some people’s expectations.” He added: “All those who have closely followed this case and were engaged in the important national dialogue that it has inspired, I urge you, I urge you to read this report in full.” 

Holder noted that the promise he made during his visit to Ferguson after Brown’s death, was not that the investigators would arrive at any particular outcome, but that they would pursue the facts, wherever they led. 

Holder then explained how the second investigation, the one that looked at the pattern or practice of civil rights violations on the part of the city police department and municipal court system, had found a possible explanation for how such a strong alternative version of events -- one not supported by the facts in key ways -- was able to take hold so swiftly and be accepted so readily.

Holder said the “searing” report showed Ferguson to be a community “deeply polarized,” where “deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents; a community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement, not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue; a community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to be disproportionately harmful to African American residents.” 

He said that harm appeared to stem, at least in part, from racial bias, “both implicit and explicit” and that the combination of all of these conditions, unlawful practices and constitutional violations not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy and made local residents less safe, “but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those who are charged to serve and to protect them.”

Holder added, that viewed in this context, amid what he called a “highly toxic environment, defined mistrust and resentment,” and years of bad feelings spurred by illegal and misguided practices, “it’s not difficult to see how a single tragic incident set the city of Ferguson off like a powder keg,” said Holder.

“Members of the community may not have been responding only to a single, isolated confrontation, but also to a pervasive, corrosive and deeply unfortunate lack of trust,” said Holder.

Holder then gave examples of where law enforcement officials had engaged in first amendment abuses, sometimes arresting individuals for talking back to officers and recording the public activities of police.  He said police violated residents’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures and engaged in a dangerous use of force.  All he said were “severely disproportionately” used against African Americans and driven by what he called an overriding pressure from the city to use law enforcement as a tool for raising revenue. 

Holder described a system where the city relied on the police force to serve as a collection agency for the municipal court system, starting with fines and fine enforcement, rather than functioning as an entity to maintain and promote public safety.

He said officers sometimes competed to see who could generate the highest number of multiple charges from a single traffic stop, with three or four charges for a single stop being considered fairly routine.  He said that in at least one instance an officer charged an individual with 14 violations from one stop.

Holder described how in 2007, one woman received two parking tickets totaling $152.  To date, he said, she had paid $550 in fines and fees to the city of Ferguson and spent six days in jail and “still, inexplicably owes Ferguson $541.” 

He said her story was similar to dozens of similar accounts discovered in the investigation.  Holder said “this culture” of enforcement actions being disconnected from the public safety needs of the community, and often to the detriment of residents, had given rise to what he called a disturbing and unconstitutional practice, where officers routinely violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping people without reasonable suspicion and making arrests without probable cause.  He also said that it has become common practice for Ferguson police to stop pedestrians and to request identification for no reason at all.

Holder also said officers use unreasonable force against those they stop and frequently escalate situations rather than de-escalate encounters with residents.  He described one case where an officer detained a 32 year old African American man who had just finished playing basketball at a park.  The man was sitting in his car at the time resting when the officer noticed that the vehicle may have had windows with darker tinting that allowed by Ferguson.  Holder said that while the window tinting gave the officer legitimate grounds to question the man, what happened next came with no justification.

The situation quickly escalated from the initial encounter to the officer accusing the man of being a pedophile and ordering him out of the car for a pat-down search when there was no reason to suspect that the man was armed.  Holder said that when the man objected, citing his constitutional rights, the officer drew his weapon and pointed it at the man’s head and arrested him on eight different counts.  As a result of the arrest, Holder said the man lost his job.  He also said the incident was anything but isolated.

The investigation’s review of police records also show what Holder calls a “disturbing history of using force against people with mental illness.”  He also said the investigation’s findings indicate that nearly 90-percent of the department’s use of force is directed at African Americans.  Holder said the statistics point to what he called “the most pernicious” aspect of uncovered in the investigation – that these police practices disproportionately harmed African American residents.  For that he said the evidence found no alternative explanation other than “implicit and explicit racial bias.”

From October 2012 to October 2014, African Americans accounted for slightly more than 85-percent of all traffic stops by Ferguson police, despite making up only 67-percent of the city’s population.  He also said African Americans were twice as likely to be searched during those stops as were white residence, even though they were less likely to be carrying contraband. 

African Americans also made up 90-percent of those charged with what Holder called a “highly discretionary” offense of “manner of walking along roadway” and he repeated the phrase for the audience of Justice Department employees gathered for his speech.  Many in the audience were shaking their heads in apparent disbelief.

In cases where Ferguson police dogs were used, Holder said, police records show that only African Americans were recorded as being bitten by police dogs.  

Holder said an examination of work emails showed several public servants expressing racist comments or gender discrimination that he described as demonstrating “grotesque” views and images of African Americans.

In rounding out his comments, Holder said that all of the examples, statistics and conclusions were drawn directly from the findings of the investigation.  "Clearly these findings and others included in the report, demonstrate that although some community perception of Michael Brown's death may not have been accurate, the widespread conditions, that these perceptions were based upon, and the climate that gave rise to them were all too real - some of those protesters were right."

Holder says the situation in Ferguson has not only damaged relationships between law enforcement and  the community, but has also made professional policing “vastly more difficult” and placed officers at unnecessary risk.

Holder said, “It is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action.” In what clearly sounded like a warning to Ferguson officials, Holder said that while the Department sought to work with the city, the “Department of Justice reserves all of its rights and abilities to force compliance and to implement basic change – nothing is off the table.”

He said the department would continue to stand with the people of Ferguson and even though the department has issued its findings, its work would go on.  “It will go on as we engage with the city of Ferguson and surrounding municipalities – and surrounding municipalities, to reform their law enforcement practices and to establish a public safety effort that protects and serves all members of the community.”