ABOVE PHOTO: Darren Wilson
By Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department won’t prosecute a former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black 18-year-old, but in a scathing report released Wednesday faulted the city and its law enforcement for racial bias and unconstitutional practices.
Federal officials concluded there was no evidence to disprove former officer Darren Wilson’s testimony that he feared for his safety, nor were there reliable witness accounts to establish that Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.
But they also said the shooting occurred in an environment of systemic mistreatment of blacks, where officials traded racist emails and jokes and where minorities were disproportionately stopped and searched, fined for petty offenses and subjected to excessive police force.
“Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement announcing the findings.
The decision in the August 9 shooting had been expected, in part because of the high legal standard needed for a federal civil rights prosecution. Wilson, who has said Brown struck him in the face and reached for his gun during a tussle, also had been cleared by a Missouri grand jury in November and later resigned from the department.
The Brown family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said the family was not surprised but very disappointed, and one of Brown’s uncles, Charles Ewing, said he believed Wilson was “getting away with it.”
“I really was hoping they would have come up with better findings because this whole thing just does not add up,” he said. “Everything just doesn’t make sense.”
The findings of the investigation into the police department, which began weeks after Brown’s killing last August, were released as Holder prepares to leave his job following a six-year tenure that focused largely on civil rights. The report is based on interviews with police leaders and residents, a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests.
The report includes more than two dozen recommendations to improve the closely aligned police department and court system, including training officers to de-escalate confrontations and better oversight of its recruiting, hiring and promotion procedures.
Federal officials on Wednesday described Ferguson city leaders as cooperative and open to change, and said there were already signs of improvement.
Similarly broad federal civil rights investigations of troubled police departments have led to the appointment of independent monitors and mandated overhauls in the most fundamental of police practices. The Justice Department maintains the right to sue a police department if officials balk at making changes, though many investigations resolve the issue with both sides negotiating a blueprint for change known as a consent decree.
“It’s quite evident that change is coming down the pike. This is encouraging,” said John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist. “It’s so unfortunate that Michael Brown had to be killed. But in spite of that, I feel justice is coming.”
Brown’s killing set off weeks of protests and initiated a national dialogue about police use of force and their relations with minority communities.
But to charge Wilson with a federal civil rights violation, the Justice Department would have had to have
shown that the officer willfully violated Brown’s civil rights by using unreasonable force. That standard is a high threshold and has historically granted deference to police officers who act in split-second decisions.
Federal officials said witness accounts that Brown was running away as he was shot were disproven by physical evidence. Under the law, they said, Wilson could reasonably argue that he was justified in shooting Brown as Brown continued to advance toward him and refuse commands to stop.