As local authorities in Missouri near the end of their investigation in the Ferguson shooting, a broader federal civil rights review could hold a greater potential to refashion the police department and bring long-lasting change.
While a St. Louis County grand jury investigates the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the Justice Department is investigating, too. More than two months into its probe of the Ferguson department's practices, the civil rights inquiry is focusing on use-of-force, stops and searches and possible patterns of discrimination in the ways that officers in the predominantly white department interact with the majority-black community.
Results are likely months away and may do little quickly to mollify the community. But whether or not officer Darren Wilson ends up facing state or federal criminal prosecution, the civil rights investigation will continue. In similar cases, broad federal investigations of police departments have dictated changes in how officers carry out the most fundamental of tasks, from searching suspects to making traffic stops.
“If the end goal of this is to ensure that no one's civil rights get violated, that everyone is treated decently and their constitutional rights are protected, the best thing that can come out of this is an overall look at the department,” said David Weinstein, a former federal civil rights prosecutor in Miami.
Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has made the overhaul of troubled police departments among his civil-rights priorities. In the past five years, the Justice Department has investigated some 20 police departments for problems that include treatment of the mentally ill, high numbers of officer-involved shootings and patterns of excessive force and racial bias. Police departments in Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans are among those that have committed to reforms.
A county grand jury is expected to announce any day whether it will indict Wilson, and federal authorities also are investigating the shooting for potential civil rights violations. Concerned about reactions if Wilson is not indicted, police are bracing for protests, and Missouri's governor has activated the state National Guard.
Separately, the Justice Department on Sept. 4 announced a broad investigation into the police force, with Holder pointing to a “deep mistrust” by residents and a lack of racial diversity among the Ferguson officers. More recently, he's described a need for “wholesale change” at the department.
A report last year by the Missouri attorney general's office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as often as white motorists but were less likely to find contraband among the black drivers.
“From what we know, it seems likely that they're going to find some problems,” said William Yeomans, an American University law fellow who spent more than two decades in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. He said the public too often becomes preoccupied with individual prosecutions without recognizing the importance of “bringing about long-term lasting change.”
The civil rights investigations often, though not always, end with the Justice Department and a local police force entering into a court-enforceable agreement that mandates changes.
Recent examples include Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the police department resolved a federal investigation by agreeing to reforms that include new training and protocols for investigating officer shootings, and Portland, Oregon, where a July court-approved agreement required changes in the way the police deal with the mentally ill.
Still, federal investigations into police departments can take years and it's not easy to measure their lasting results, especially since some of the agreements are relatively new.
Ursula Price, executive director of community relations for New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, a civilian oversight agency, said the city police department is “not there yet” despite a sweeping reform plan approved last year that required changes in the use of force, crisis intervention, training, interrogations and stops, searches and arrests.
She said federal intervention alone isn't enough, noting that Justice Department lawyers don't go to every police-involved shooting, attend every disciplinary hearing or live permanently in the community. But she said it was a positive step that provides oversight and promotes comprehensive change.
Community advocates in New Orleans have years of experience responding to police-involved shootings, including a string of such cases in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that brought renewed scrutiny to the department. Price said experience has taught her that changing a department's culture is as important as individual accountability.
“I can name 25 Michael Browns,” she said. “We've been through this over and over again, so our perspective has deepened.”
Despite criminal convictions arising from officer misconduct, “we were still having the same difficult and dysfunctional relationships with the police we've always had, so it started becoming clear that sending individuals to jail isn't the way to resolve this.”
“The lesson we've learned here in New Orleans is, yes, we need to hold individuals accountable but we also need to address systemic issues.”