Within hours of the Missouri prosecutor announcing the grand jury’s decision to clear a Ferguson police officer in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement assuring the public that his departments own investigations into the matter were still underway.
“The federal inquiry has been independent of the local one from the start, and remains so now,” he said in a statement Monday night. “We have avoided prejudging any of the evidence [and] … we have resisted forming premature conclusions.”
But Holder’s statement also acknowledged a reality about federal law in such cases: “[It] imposes a high legal bar.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is separately conducting two investigations related to the matter.
First, federal investigators are looking into whether Ferguson Police Officer Darren 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.
Second, federal investigators are 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.
So the decision on criminal charges “is not the end of this,” said William Yeomans, a former Justice Department official who spent 26 years prosecuting federal civil rights cases.
Officers in Ferguson have allegedly been more likely to stop and arrest a black driver than a white driver. And the police force of nearly 50 has hired only a few black officers.
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.
“I think there's an opportunity for systemic change here,” Yeomans said. “[It’s] where big change can come.”
Brown’s family could also consider filing a civil lawsuit against Wilson or the Ferguson police department, accusing them of taking part in a wrongful death.