In a report released on Wednesday, March 4, the Department of Justice confirmed that officer Darren Wilson will not be prosecuted by the federal government for his role in the August 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  However, the report, which was based on a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records, interviews of police officer and residents, along with analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests, concluded that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct in violation of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law. 

The investigation was initiated under the pattern-or-practice provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 3789d (“Safe Streets Act”), and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d (“Title VI”). The report included more than two dozen recommendations to improve the police department and court system, including training officers to deescalate confrontations and provide better oversight of its recruiting, hiring and promotion procedures.

Significantly, the report concluded that 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.  

This is an important lesson for municipalities to understand.  The Justice Department does not merely investigate use of force incidents.  It conducts interviews and reviews internal communications such as email and radio traffic in order to assess a police department’s core values and attitudes regarding bias based police practices.

Earlier this year, the White House and the Justice Department announced that civil rights investigations will be a priority.  Based on past experience, it is likely that the federal government will employ a two pronged approach to this effort by:

  1. Expanding the use of enforcement actions against municipalities that resist changes to existing patterns and practices regarding use of force.
  2. Seeking partnerships and alliances and creating incentives for municipalities that seek to work collaboratively to transform policing practices specifically with respect to use of force monitoring systems. 

In a statement announcing the findings, Attorney General Eric Holder stated, “Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson's leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action.”  Clearly, the Department of Justice is sending a message to municipal leaders to proactively initiate independent reviews before another Ferguson event occurs.