The nation’s top cop today said he was “disappointed” by the violence that erupted overnight in Ferguson, Missouri, and he said the federal government would soon announce a series of new programs to help ease tensions between law enforcement and citizens in cities and towns like Ferguson.
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At a hastily-arranged meeting with reporters inside the Justice Department, Holder said he was briefed overnight and into today about the security situation on the ground in Ferguson, and he then briefed President Obama in the Oval Office today.
The two talked about “programmatic initiatives that we want to announce relatively soon,” Holder said of the White House meeting, adding that in the weeks ahead the federal government will be bringing together federal and local law enforcement, elected officials and community leaders to take “concrete steps” to address issues of mistrust.
“I think this is an opportunity to find those things that bind us as a nation, to be honest with one another about those things that continue to divide us, and to come up with ways in which we make this union even more perfect,” Holder said.
In his remarks today, Holder also emphasized that – even though a Missouri grand jury declined to charge officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August – the Justice Department continues to conduct two separate probes, a criminal investigation into Brown’s killing and a civil probe into practices of the Ferguson police department more broadly.
“They will be conducted rigorously and in a timely manner so that we can move forward as expeditiously as we can to restore trust, to rebuild understanding and to foster cooperation between law enforcement and community members,” Holder said, flanked on either side by the Justice Department officials overseeing the federal probes.
Specifically, federal investigators are looking into whether Wilson used unreasonable force when he killed Brown on Aug. 9. But building a case like that is particularly challenging, especially since prosecutors would need to prove that Wilson intended from the start to violate Brown’s constitutional rights.
Federal investigators are also taking a hard look at the Ferguson police department, trying to determine whether officers routinely engage in a "pattern or practice" of unlawful and discriminatory policing.
Depending on what federal investigators conclude and how city officials respond, a civil lawsuit could be filed by the Justice Department and a federal court could demand Ferguson police make big transformations.
Holder also disclosed that he has asked the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Ron Davis, to conduct an “after-action review” of the law enforcement response to the violence that erupted overnight.
The after-action review will look to “develop strategies for identifying and isolating the criminal elements from peaceful protesters,” Holder said, sitting next to Davis and top Civil Rights Division officials Molly Moran and Mark Kappelhoff.
“I was disappointed that some members of the community resorted to violence rather than respecting what I thought were the really heartfelt words of Michael Brown Sr. and the wishes that he expressed about how he wanted his son’s memory to be honored with non-violence,” Holder said. “It is clear that acts of violence threaten to drown out those who have legitimate voices, legitimate demonstrators and those acts cannot and will not be condoned.”
At the same time, Holder said, he was “encouraged” by the peaceful demonstrations across the country and “heartened” by those in Ferguson who tried to stop the violence and looting there.
They are “heroes in my mind,” he said.