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Justice Department clears Wilson of civil rights charges, calls for steps to counter police bias

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Seven months after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, the U.S. Department of Justice today released two investigations - one that cleared Wilson and the other that accused Ferguson police and courts of violating constitutional rights.

(See full documents of both investigations below)

In a press release, the Justice Department announced that it will not pursue charges against Wilson for violating Brown's civil rights: "After a careful and deliberative review of all of the evidence, the department has determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute. The family of Michael Brown was notified earlier today of the department’s findings."

In a second investigation into the police department, whose findings have been leaking out over the past day, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement, "This investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.”

“Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them," continued Holder. "Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action.  The report we have issued and the steps we have taken are only the beginning of a necessarily resource-intensive and inclusive process to promote reconciliation, to reduce and eliminate bias, and to bridge gaps and build understanding.”

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the Justice Department, Holder said he had personally reviewed the decision not to charge Wilson and agreed with it. The Justice Department's findings about Brown's death differed significantly from some widely circulated accounts, he said. He urged people to read the report to understand what happened.

Holder said one possible explanation for why people believed false accounts was that Ferguson was rife with tensions and resentment due to a pattern of racial bias in police and court practices. Holder called the Justice Department's report on these constitutional violations "searing."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, in a later press conference, said: "We must do better -- not only as a city but as a state and a country." He listed several actions Ferguson had already taken, including:

-- One city employee has been fired and two others are under investigation after the Justice Department report said they had made racist remarks in emails.

-- A task force is working on creation of a civilian review board for the Ferguson Police Department.

-- Ferguson has cut its cap for income from fines to 15 per cent of revenue. That's half the legal limit.

Investigation into Darren Wilson

In November, a grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict Wilson on any criminal charges. In the aftermath, many protesters and Brown's supporters hoped that the Justice Department's investigation would bring the justice that they thought they had been denied. Legal experts, however, had long observed that the standard for a civil rights violation would be difficult to meet.

And that is what Justice concluded: "The standard of proof is the same for all criminal cases: that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. However, unlike state laws, federal criminal civil rights statutes do not have the equivalent of manslaughter or a statute that makes negligence a crime.  Federal statutes require the government to prove that Officer Wilson used unreasonable force when he shot Michael Brown and that he did so willfully, that is, he shot Brown knowing it was wrong and against the law to do so.  After a careful and deliberative review of all of the evidence, the department has determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute.  The family of Michael Brown was notified earlier today of the department’s findings."

The investigation into the police department's practices and patterns may have the most long-term impact and potential for change.

Credit Department of Justice

The 100-page report includes 26 recommendations for reforming what it calls "unconstitutional" police and municipal court practices. They range from: "changing policing and court practices so that they are based on public safety instead of revenue; improving training and oversight; changing practices to reduce bias, and; ending an overreliance on arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines."
The Justice Department's recommendations will be part of a "court-enforceable remedial process that includes involvement from community stakeholders as well as independent oversight." In the coming weeks, the department will be working with Ferguson to "develop and reach an agreement for reform, using the recommendations in the report as the starting point." 

Recommendations for reforming Ferguson's 'patterns and practices'

The report includes dozens of specific recommendations for improving Ferguson's police department and municipal court. They include better training, more community involvement in setting policy and reviewing allegations of misconduct and an emphasis on deescalation of encounters to reduce use of force.

Among other things, the report recommends that the Ferguson Police Department:

  • Shift “from policing to raise revenue to policing in partnership with the entire Ferguson community.” To do that, the report suggests finding “opportunities for officers to have frequent, positive interactions with people outside of an enforcement context, especially groups that have expressed high levels of distrust of police.”
  • Change how it stops, searches, issues summonses and citations and makes arrests. The department's enforcement efforts “should be reoriented so that officers are required to take enforcement action because it promotes public safety, not simply because they have legal authority to act.”
  • More “stringently” review officers “stop, search, ticketing, and arrest practices” to ensure that officers are complying with “Constitution and department policy." Supervisors should review all officer activity and review all officer reports before the supervisor leaves a shift.
  • Should make sure officers are “trained and skilled in using tools and tactics to de-escalate situations" and encouraged to "avoid using force wherever possible.”
  • Increase “general training” for all of its police officers. Officers, the report says, “need a better knowledge of what law, policy, and integrity require, and concrete training on how to carry out their police responsibilities.”
  • Develop a way for citizens to have input into the workings of the police department.
  • Create mechanisms that allow for quicker action in the case of officer misconduct. That would include making “it easier and less intimidating for individuals to register formal complaints about police conduct, including providing complaint forms online and in various locations throughout the city and allowing for complaints to be submitted online and by third parties or anonymously.”
    Credit 2013 traffic numbers from the Missouri attorney general's office

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Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.