August 20, 2014

Attorney General Eric Holder shows empathy for Ferguson’s frustration

In this battle-scarred St. Louis suburb, he met with community leaders and promised a “thorough and fair” federal inquiry into the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. “Our investigation is different” from a parallel St. Louis County probe, Holder said in a meeting room surrounded by his top aides and local federal officials. “We’re looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes.”

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. swept into this battle-scarred St. Louis suburb Wednesday, meeting with community leaders and promising a “thorough and fair” federal inquiry into the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Before going into an investigative briefing at the local FBI headquarters, Holder said the Justice Department had assembled “very experienced” prosecutors and agents to determine whether 18-year-old Michael Brown’s civil rights were violated when he was shot by a white police officer.

“Our investigation is different” from a parallel St. Louis county probe, Holder said in a meeting room surrounded by his top aides and local federal officials. “We’re looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes.”

Holder met briefly with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who has been in charge of security in Ferguson for nearly a week. The National Guard is also helping to keep the peace.

Asked whether he had confidence in the local investigation of the police officer, Johnson said Holder’s presence “is a guarantee on that.”

In a letter published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holder called for an end to the violence in Ferguson. He said the bond of trust between law enforcement and the public is “all-important” but also “fragile.”

Arrest patterns “must not lead to disparate treatment under the law, even if such treatment is unintended. And police forces should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” Holder wrote.

On Wednesday, the nation’s first black attorney general offered a highly personal perspective on Brown’s death and the days of sometimes-violent protests it has spawned in this predominantly black community of 21,000 people.

“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder said after meeting with students at St. Louis Community College and hearing about their distrust of police.

“I understand that mistrust. I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man,” Holder said, recalling his own humiliation when he was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike and accused of speeding by officers who searched his car. He also spoke of rushing to a movie in the District of Columbia and being stopped by an officer, who flashed his lights and yelled, “Where are you going? Hold it!”

“I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself,” Holder told more than 50 Ferguson community members in an auditorium at the community college.

Although he declined to provide details of the federal investigation into the Brown case, Holder concluded by saying: “This country is capable of change. But change doesn’t happen by itself. So let’s start here. Let’s do the work today.”

Holder’s remarks, unusual for a federal law enforcement official overseeing an active case, pointed up the urgency with which the Obama administration views Brown’s death and the events in Ferguson, even as local officials said the community had reached a turning point after fewer protests Tuesday night. The Justice Department investigation has escalated in recent days, with more than 200 people interviewed.

Meanwhile, Brown’s funeral arrangements were set. The Austin A. Layne Mortuary, which is handling arrangements, said the funeral will be Monday at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Brown’s uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing, will deliver the eulogy. The Rev. Al Sharpton will also speak.

The state investigation of Brown’s death is also moving forward, as the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office on Wednesday presented the first pieces of evidence to a grand jury that will determine if state charges are filed against officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown on Aug. 9. It could take until October for the grand jury to hear all of the evidence, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch said. “We will present absolutely everything to this grand jury,” McCulloch told a St. Louis radio station.

Outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton, where the grand jury convened, two dozen protesters gathered in a circle for a prayer, chanted and held signs urging McCulloch to step aside.

McCulloch’s deep family connections to police have been cited by some black leaders who question his ability to be impartial in the case. McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.

The prosecutor, who is white, has insisted his background will have no bearing on the handling of the Brown case.

On Wednesday, police released the first set of comprehensive arrest figures for who they have taken into custody since the demonstrations started. The records showed that a total of 157 people have been arrested, 123 of them charged with refusal to disperse and a few on more serious counts such as unlawful use of a weapon.

Although 126 of those arrested were from Missouri, the records showed, the rest came from throughout the United States, including nine from Illinois, five from California and one from the District of Columbia.

The controversial police crackdown on the protests also claimed a casualty Wednesday, as an officer who pointed an assault rifle at people in Ferguson on Tuesday night and threatened to kill them was relieved of duty and suspended indefinitely, authorities said. A protester captured the exchange on video Tuesday and posted it to YouTube and other websites.

The officer, who was not identified, was removed from the field after he pointed the weapon at a peaceful protester, according to Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department. “The unified command strongly feel these actions are inappropriate, and not indicative of the officers who have worked daily to keep the peace,” Schellman said in an email.

In Ferguson on Wednesday, many business were open on the downtown commercial strip on West Florissant Avenue.

Some protesters returned to the streets Wednesday evening but in diminishing numbers. They marched around a single block as a thunderstorm filled the sky with lighting and dumped rain. Police still stood guard, but many wore regular uniforms rather than riot gear.

The relative calm came after another tense night Tuesday. About midnight, in the streets near where Brown was killed, bottles filled with ice and water were thrown at police. So was urine. Police said “agitators” hid behind journalists. Officers stormed a press area hunting for perpetrators. In all, 47 people were arrested — one for the third time since protests began.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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