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Who's Who Of Justice Agencies Investigating Ferguson


When the Justice Department met with Ferguson residents this week, a phalanx of a dozen federal officials stood before the citizens in front of the room.  They represented an alphabet soup of federal offices that Attorney General Eric Holder has thrown at the problems in Ferguson.

Credit Wikipedia

There was a criminal investigation, a pattern-or-practice investigation, a COPs inquiry, a Community Relations Service mediation, a continuing investigation into St. Louis County family court and an inquiry into how discipline is meted out in the schools.

The Justice Department representatives set up tables in different corners of the auditorium at Florissant Valley Community College to collect information from the citizens.

Here’s a rundown of who is involved:

Criminal investigation: The criminal section of the Civil Rights Division is investigating whether Office Darren Wilson willfully violated Brown’s civil rights when he shot and killed him. The Justice Department would not file charges unless it concluded that the state criminal process had not vindicated federal interests and unless it had enough evidence to show Wilson acted with reckless disregard of Brown’s known rights. That is a high evidentiary bar.

Pattern or Practice: The Justice Department is conducting an investigation into the “pattern or practice” of policing in Ferguson under a two-decade-old law that authorizes the Justice Department to force local police departments to end unconstitutional police practices. The investigation will look at use of deadly and non-deadly force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and police treatment of prisoners in the Ferguson jail. 

The department can file a civil lawsuit or more likely persuade the police department to sign on to to a consent decree promising to make changes over a period of years.  A court monitor is often appointed to oversee the changes.   

COPS: The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office launched a “Collaborative Reform Initiative” with the St. Louis County Police Department. COPS, which is staffed by experts in policing, does not have the power to file a court case. But it works with police departments to persuade them to improve police policies voluntarily. The first COPS agreement with Las Vegas in 2011 resulted in 75 changes in policies on the use of deadly force.

COPS promises an “open, independent and objective assessment of…training, use of force, handling of mass demonstrations, stops, searches, arrests, and fair and impartial policing.” Its assessment will include the St. Louis County Police Academy. COPS emphasizes that its solutions are not short term but “a long-term strategy that identifies the issues within an agency that affect public trust and offers recommendations on how to improve the issue and enhance the relationship between the police and the community.”

Community Relations Service: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established this small agency, which arrives in American towns and cities after racial strife and hate crimes.  Calling itself “America’s peacemaker,” it provides confidential mediation of disputes. It says it “uses conflict resolution strategies and does not investigate, prosecute, impose solutions, assign blame, or assess fault.”

CRS was involved in mediating the racial divisions in Kirkwood after the 2008 City Hall shootings. Its work led to a mediation agreement approved by the Kirkwood City Council calling for an improved Human Rights Commission and more police involvement with African-American youths in Meacham Park.

St. Louis County Juvenile Court investigation: This too is a “pattern or practice” investigation headed by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, but the investigation started last year before Brown was killed.The department is investigating whether children in the St. Louis County family court are receiving the constitutional due process rights in delinquency hearings. It also is looking at whether children are treated differently based on their race.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Washington University law professor Mae Quinn wrote that children historically have not received probable cause hearings in St. Louis County family court even if they were about to face charges as an adult.

At last week’s meeting in Ferguson, the Justice Department set up a separate table to receive complaints involving school discipline and whether African-Americans are treated differently from white students.


Copyright 2014 St. Louis Public Radio

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.