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Justice Department to investigate Ferguson police department

September 4, 2014 at 8:50 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that the Department of Justice is launching a full-blown federal civil rights investigation of the entire police department in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer.

ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General: There’s cause for the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Ferguson police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the United States Constitution or federal law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement came just short of a month since the death of Michael Brown, who was 18 and unarmed. The killing sparked weeks of protests in Ferguson and often violent clashes with police. Holder went to the Saint Louis suburb himself on August 20 to meet with community leaders and Brown’s family.

ERIC HOLDER: When I visited Ferguson two weeks ago, I promised that the United States Department of Justice would continue to stand with the people there long after the national headlines had faded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Justice Department is already investigating the confrontation that led to the shooting of Brown at least six times by police officer Darren Wilson. This new probe will examine recent police practices in Ferguson for any patterns of racial bias, excessive use of force and other problems.

ERIC HOLDER:  The vast majority of police departments do their job in a way that we would expect. But to the extent that there are problems, I think we as a society need to have the guts to say, you know, we’re going to identify this as a problem, this is a deficiency in our country and we’re going to make it better.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson met with federal officials yesterday, and said he would welcome the investigation. He said his department has no intentional policies that lend themselves to discrimination.

But there is a broad racial disparity between the force and the city it polices. Ferguson, with a population of 20,000, is two-thirds African-American. The police department has 53 officers and only four of them are black. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general found Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as frequently as they stopped white drivers.

In recent years, the Justice Department has stepped up its own investigations of police agencies. There’ve been 20 such investigations in the past five years, including high-profile probes in New Orleans and Albuquerque. That is more than double the number in the previous five years.