The Justice Department won’t prosecute a former Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black 18-year-old, but in a scathing report released Wednesday faulted the city and its law enforcement for racial bias.
Federal officials concluded there was no evidence to disprove former officer Darren Wilson’s testimony that he feared for his safety, nor was there reliable evidence that Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.
The decision in the August 9 shooting had been expected, in part because of the high legal standard needed for a federal civil rights prosecution. Wilson, who has said Brown struck him in the face and reached for his gun during a tussle, also had been cleared by a Missouri grand jury in November and later resigned from the department.
A separate report issued Wednesday said blacks in Ferguson are disproportionately subject to excessive police force, baseless traffic stops and citations for infractions as petty as walking down the middle of the street.
‘Immediate, wholesale’ action needed, Holder says
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on leaders of Ferguson to take “immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action” on the problems with the city’s police that the Justice Department unearthed while investigating the shooting.
Holder, who will soon hand over the position of the country’s top cop to Loretta Lynch, said the department would continue to work on reducing and eliminating racial bias within Ferguson’s police force and elsewhere.
“Let me be clear: the United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change,” Holder said in a speech about the department’s findings.
The Justice Department issued more than two dozen recommendations to improve the closely aligned police department and court system, including training officers to de-escalate confrontations and better oversight of its recruiting, hiring and promotion procedures.
Federal officials on Wednesday described Ferguson city leaders as cooperative and open to change, and said there were already signs of improvement.
Similarly broad federal civil rights investigations of troubled police departments have led to the appointment of independent monitors and mandated overhauls in the most fundamental of police practices. The Justice Department maintains the right to sue a police department if officials balk at making changes, though many investigations resolve the issue with both sides negotiating a blueprint for change known as a consent decree.
Hopes for change
“It’s quite evident that change is coming down the pike. This is encouraging,” said John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist. “It’s so unfortunate that Michael Brown had to be killed. But in spite of that, I feel justice is coming.”
Others said the federal government’s findings confirmed what they had long known and should lead to change in the police department leadership.
Brown’s killing set off weeks of protests and initiated a national dialogue about police use of force and their relations with minority communities.
The report is based on interviews with police leaders and residents, a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests.