WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder promised Thursday a thorough and potentially sweeping investigation into potential civil rights violations by police in the Ferguson, Mo.
At a press conference at the Justice Department, Holder announced a Civil Rights Division investigation into Ferguson police to start, but suggested the investigation could spread to other police forces in the closely-packed St. Louis suburbs.
"I feel pretty certain that we will be doing an examination, in some form or fashion, with regard to those other police forces," Holder said, referring to the police departments of suburban towns adjacent to Ferguson. "That's certainly, you know, a part of what [officials from the Justice Department's COPS program] will be doing; whether or not the pattern or practice thing actually expands into those other jurisdictions, we'll just have to see. But there's no question that, I think, in some fashion, we'll be interacting with and looking at what those other police departments are doing."
Holder said "anecdotal evidence" he gleaned in part from his trip to Ferguson in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, as well as "documentary evidence," was enough to open the civil rights probe into the Ferguson police.
"Over the course of that visit, I had the chance to speak with a number of local residents. I heard from them directly about the deep mistrust that has taken hold between law enforcement officials and members of that community," Holder said. "In meetings, as well as in listening sessions, as well as informal conversations, people consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices and from the lack of diversity on the Ferguson police force."
As media attention rained down on the suburb after the Brown shooting, stories about the Ferguson police department's lack of racial diversity and the town's reliance on revenue from traffic and other violations disproportionally levied against the black population for revenue have led to questions. Holder said these and other matters led to the civil rights investigation.
Holder said local officials will embrace the probe. Ahead of Holder's press conference, Ferguson officials released a statement signing on to the investigation.
"The City of Ferguson and the Ferguson Police Department welcome the Department of Justice and their pending investigation," the statement read. "Over the past few weeks we have hosted and participated in several meetings with the Department of Justice and feel our collaborative efforts are another step forward in showing our willingness to be transparent and forthright as we continue the process of earning back the trust of our residents and our neighbors in the St. Louis region."
Some national police advocates have questioned the timing of the probe, and supporters of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, have warned it could taint the ongoing grand jury investigation into Wilson's actions.
Holder dismissed the criticisms.
"I worked with grand juries myself as a prosecutor, and I know that grand juries have the capacity to keep separate those things that should be a part of their considerations," he said. "And I'm confident that this will not have an impact on the grand jury process."
He said local cooperation with the probe shows the timing is right.
"I don't think there is any question that there is a basis to begin a pattern or practice investigation. So that with regard to those who might be concerned that we are somehow being premature, all we're saying at this point is that we're opening an investigation to see whether or not there are in fact problems," Holder said. "I think that the fact that we have pledges of local cooperation is an indication that there are issues felt even there, at the local level, indicating a need for us to work together to make the situation better."
The Justice Department investigation is not expected to end quickly. A similar civil rights investigation into the Sanford, Fla., police department launched after officers declined to arrest George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 is still ongoing, Holder said.
"Historically, they have taken months, not weeks, sometimes longer than months," assistant attorney general Molly Moran, the acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said. "But there's no set deadline and there's no standard time period."