By Albert Lin
As the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., continues, Attorney General Eric Holder is in the embattled city on Wednesday to meet with investigators and community leaders.
What can he hope to accomplish during his visit, with violent protests still taking place 11 days after the death of Michael Brown “There’s not a lot of time right now, [so] maybe he’s going down there in an informal way to encourage the local officials to reform their practices, so he can see some results much quicker,” Cornell University Professor of Law Jens David Ohlin told NBC News. “Another possibility is he’s hoping, and the President is hoping, that his mere presence there will have some calming effect.
“He’ll be able to mediate between the law-enforcement community, which obviously sees Holder as being the highest law-enforcement official in the country, and the African-American community, which knows that Holder is one of the highest ranking African-American officials in the whole country. That’s not an explicitly legal function; it’s more of a socio-political function.”
As the nation’s first Black Attorney General and as someone who has experienced racism first hand, Holder’s mere presence may be enough to demonstrate to protesters that their concerns about the shooting and its aftermath are not being swept aside.
“He’s the embodiment of law enforcement,” William Yeomans, a Fellow in Law and Government at American University who worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for more than two decades, told The Associated Press, “and the positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this incident.”
Indeed, law-enforcement officials told The New York Times that Holder and his top lieutenants are considering opening a broader civil-rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department’s policing practices after a report that a Black man claimed he was beaten by four Ferguson police officers in 2009 and then charged with damaging government property for getting his blood on their uniforms.
Last week, a source told NBC News that the DOJ strongly objected to the release of the surveillance video allegedly showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store, but it was only able to convince the Ferguson Police Department to delay the release by one day.
Under Holder, the Department of Justice has opened more than 20 civil-rights investigations into police misconduct, twice as many as were opened in the previous five years.
Civil rights has become an increasing focus of Holder’s over the past three years, with challenges to voter-ID laws and calls to reduce mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses on his agenda.
However, he has been criticized by some for his failure to bring civil-rights charges against George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin in a case with similarities to that of Michael Brown.
Holder has released three statements on the Brown shooting and the ongoing investigation (here, here and here); in an op-ed piece in Wednesday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch and on the stltoday.com website titled “A Message to the People of Ferguson,” he reiterated several points from his previous statements:
“The people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learnin a fair and thorough mannerexactly what happened.”
“The full resources of the Department of Justice have been committed to the investigation into Michael Brown’s death. This inquiry will take time to complete, but we have already taken significant steps. Approximately 40 FBI agents and some of the Civil Rights Division’s most experienced prosecutors have been deployed to lead this process, with the assistance of the United States Attorney in St. Louis. Hundreds of people have already been interviewed in connection with this matter. On Monday, at my direction, a team of federal medical examiners conducted an independent autopsy.”
“In order to begin the healing process, we must first see an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson. Although these acts have been committed by a very small minorityand, in many cases, by individuals from outside Fergusonthey seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice. And they interrupt the deeper conversation that the legitimate demonstrators are trying to advance. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord.”
He concluded: “This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent. And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil-rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understandingand robust actionaimed at bridging persistent gaps between law-enforcement officials and the communities we serve. Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community.”