Strong DOJ response to Ferguson seeks truth, calm

By August 20, 2014

The U.S. Department of Justice has mounted an unusually swift and aggressive response to the death of Michael Brown, from an independent autopsy to dozens of FBI agents combing Ferguson, Missouri, for witnesses to the shooting of the unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer.

The goal, legal observers say, is to ensure that the truth about the killing is revealed, to ease racial tensions, and to reassure those fearing a cover-up that justice will be done.

Brown was shot dead in the street in the St. Louis suburb on Aug. 9. Gov. Jay Nixon asked for a federal investigation two days later, after riots erupted when the county police force confronted protesters with armored vehicles, tear gas and dogs. After the images of the military-style police response drew widespread criticism, federal officials said they were coaching local authorities on different tactics.

On Saturday, 40 FBI agents started going door-to-door in the neighborhood where the shooting took place, interviewing witnesses and gathering information. An independent federal autopsy was announced Sunday, and Attorney General Eric Holder said it was performed Monday. President Barack Obama also announced Monday that Holder would travel to Ferguson to meet with investigators and community leaders.

“What they usually do is wait for the local investigation to complete itself,” said Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general under President George W. Bush.

Gonzales said that although he did not have all the information being evaluated by federal officials, it appeared to be an aggressive and unusual response to an unusual case.

“They’re going in with one goal: to ascertain the truth. And to do so in a way that raw feelings can be comforted and soothed,” said Gonzales, who is now dean of the Belmont College of Law in Nashville.

Ferguson is about 70 percent black. Ferguson’s mayor is white, as are five of six city council members and 50 of its 53 police officers. Many in Ferguson and beyond fear that local officials will not act fairly in determining whether to charge the officer, Darren Wilson, with a crime.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who is in charge of the investigation, also is white. He comes from a family of police officers, including his father. When he was 12, his father was fatally shot by a black man while responding to a call. In a 2000 case, McCulloch brought no charges against two officers who fired 21 shots into a vehicle, killing two black men during an attempted drug arrest.

McCulloch has declined calls to step away from the case, saying in a television interview, “I’ve been as fair and impartial and done as thorough of a job as we could.”

At the Department of Justice, Holder, the first black attorney general, who took office promising to fiercely fight discrimination and inequality, has been an increasingly visible presence during the Ferguson case.

That is reassuring to Blair L.M. Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University.

“I’m glad to see him being proactive,” she said. “That’s the best way to tamp down anger on the streets, is to pursue justice in an evenhanded manner. I think he knows that and is using his position to best serve a broader sense of justice.”

“It puts pressure on the local investigators to do their best, because he’s there,” Kelley said.

Sampson Cheney III, a Ferguson resident who lives 50 yards from where Brown was shot, is glad that federal agents are on the scene. He was interviewed by an FBI agent Saturday. He doubts that local officials would file charges against the officer.

“It seems (federal officials) don’t have a horse in the race,” Cheney said.

Holder and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke with representatives of civic groups who had been invited to participate in a White House call Monday afternoon.

A person on the call said participants were told that federal investigators have interviewed about 200 people so far, some referred through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The call was closed to reporters, and the participant spoke on condition of anonymity because of the no-media ground rules.

Kelley said Holder’s actions have been reminiscent of the role played by Attorney General Robert Kennedy (whose portrait hangs outside Holder’s office) during the civil rights movement, when President John F. Kennedy was trying to navigate black resistance to white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Ultimately, the Kennedys used federal authority to ensure equal treatment for African-Americans. They also brought federal civil rights charges in some cases — a possibility that Holder’s Justice Department is investigating in Ferguson.

The Justice Department investigated civil rights charges after the unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida. No charges were filed, despite requests by the NAACP and other advocacy groups.

But there are important differences between the Kennedy years and now, said John Malcolm, a former deputy assistant attorney general, who now is director of the Meese Legal Center at the Heritage Foundation.

“I don’t think in this case police are like, we want to oppress black people and deny them their constitutional rights,” Malcolm said. “They’re responding to a riot situation, and it got out of control.”

Malcolm could not recall a similar federal response to a case like Michael Brown’s.

“It’s certainly aggressive,” he said. “It sends a message that the federal government is concerned and wants to get involved and de-escalate the tension as soon as possible.”

Malcolm said that strategy could backfire, if it fans false assumptions that there is a racial component to the case. But overall he did not have any criticism of the DOJ’s actions.

“This is a rapidly deteriorating situation,” he said. “Clearly in the public mind there is a racial component to how police have acted. Police have not helped themselves with their overreaction to the situation. So I think there are times when (federal involvement) can help defuse the situation. Let’s hope that’s what happens here.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press


Discussion | 13 comments

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  • BobAugust 19, 2014 - 6:49 am

    All the AP stories seem incomplete, and biased, "shot dead in the street" I heard on NBC that he had 2 wounds to his head, one in the middle of his head at the top and four shots to the top of his right arm with several hits to his shoulder It's got to be hard to be shot in the top of your head standing up with your hands up, sounded like he attacked the officer in his car and the officer fired at his head and arm

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  • CD BrooksAugust 19, 2014 - 7:13 am

    Yeah this entire mess reeks! I prefer to support law enforcement and I hope this officer has evidence to justify the shooting. If not, then he needs to be indicted. Either way this city has all ready lost. How convenient for the family to find a pathologist to say the thieving kid was giving up. All they succeeded in doing was to perpetuate the madness. The Governor needs to step up and follow through letting the rioters and looters know they will be rounded up and punished for this debacle. What a disastrous way for a city to show their a** to America. Pathetic!

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  • Dave ShreeveAugust 19, 2014 - 9:48 am

    Actually Dr. Baden said the kid was either giving up OR charging the cop. All of the wounds were front to back, which contradicts what the family's attorney has been saying.

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  • rlw895August 20, 2014 - 9:18 am

    Yes, can everyone agree he wasn't shot in the back and he was shot 6 times?

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  • rlw895August 19, 2014 - 7:26 am

    Another AP story had this: "Obama’s decision to dispatch his attorney general was an admission that the teenager’s killing had become a symbol of something enormous: a test of the American justice system and the government’s ability to police the officers who police everyone else." That's good stuff. Also, there is now evidence that many of the night rioters are not from Ferguson. That was predictable.

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  • Mr. SmithAugust 19, 2014 - 12:22 pm

    As I predicted a few days ago, now that Holder's DOI (Department of Injustice) is involved, this will become a travesty. "Burn, baby, burn" is back in vogue, folks. Nobody wins. The nation loses, especially if it spreads to other cities. The police officer will probably not see justice, either, even though it appears likely he was attacked by Brown in the police car.

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  • rlw895August 19, 2014 - 1:47 pm

    Mr.S: Once again, you can't see an alternative reality. If Obama, Holder, and Governor Nixon hadn't taken the actions they did as quickly as they did, this unrest and lawlessness would likely have spread who knows how far. I'm starting to get the feeling that the police officer will be exonerated. But the Ferguson police chief should be fired for being a numbskull or worse when he released the robbery video without consulting with the state or federal authorities or even over their objections.

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  • Mr. SmithAugust 19, 2014 - 2:34 pm

    Rlw: What alternative reality? In fact, what IS an "alternative reality?" Your personal take on the issue? Ok. Here is another alternative reality for you: Obama has sent the nation's most powerful racist, Eric Holder, to Ferguson where he will inevitably seek out civil rights violations by a white person against a black person. I have predicted that it won't end well for the white person. Also, there is a good chance the "fun and games" won't end in Ferguson and elsewhere because too many bad guys are having way too much fun flaunting the law while Sharpton, Jackson and others cheer them on, and law enforcement is now treating them with kid gloves because Ferguson's police chief screwed it up with his militarized force right off the bat.

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  • rlw895August 19, 2014 - 9:04 pm

    Mr.S: Your reality always has an alternative when it comes to Obama and I guess now Holder as well. There is NO WAY Holder will do anything but seek the truth based on the evidence. His presence may be resented by local authorities because it implies they can't do the job. They can, but they can't make it "stick" like Holder can, and that's what's needed. It's racist to apply this kind of attention to a while police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man, but that's why I try to make the point that there are degrees or types of racism. We're almost all racists, but are you a rational one or an irrational one? Holder is a rational one. Obama is a rational one. I'm a rational one. What the heck are you?

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  • Mr. SmithAugust 20, 2014 - 7:20 am

    Rlw: I guess you are in good company there, with your "rationally racist" buds. No wonder you have turned a blind eye to their antics and despise anyone who points out their mistakes. Good luck with that. I'm moving on.

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  • rlw895August 20, 2014 - 9:10 am

    Might as well, Mr.S, you seem too resistant to change.

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  • rlw895August 20, 2014 - 9:15 am

    Mr.S: "Despise" is too strong a word, but I don't respect people who point out "mistakes" that aren't, or even worse, who infer virulent motives where none exist. I suspect irrational racism when that's applied to Obama or Holder.

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  • Rick WoodAugust 19, 2014 - 9:09 pm

    Mr.S: The Ferguson police chief did not screw up by giving his people the protection they had available. He screwed up when he released the robbery video without consulting the state or federal authorities who were then involved in the situation. He should be fired for that. I can't think of any explanation except incompetence or a conscious attempt to inflame the situation on someone else's watch.

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