Justice Department to Open Broad Inquiry into Ferguson Police

Devlin Barrett, Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2014

The Justice Department plans to open a broad inquiry into possible misconduct within the Ferguson, Mo., police department, which has been harshly criticized since one of its officers shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old last month, according to people familiar with the decision.

{snip} In the wake of the shooting, Ferguson officials ordered body cameras for its police officers, saying they hoped the cameras would create a clear record of the conduct of both suspects and officers, and reveal any possible problems with police training.

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Now, the department’s Civil Rights Division will begin a pattern-and-practice probe, meaning that instead of a single officer in Ferguson, the investigation will cover the entire 53-member police force, these people said. A pattern-and-practice probe is a civil, not criminal, inquiry and seeks to determine if there are systemic problems in the work culture of specific police departments.

The new probe into the Ferguson police department will look back several years and examine past allegations of misconduct, including lawsuits against Ferguson officers alleging excessive force, according to people familiar with the planned probe. {snip}

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Besides the federal probe of the shooting, the county district attorney has empaneled a grand jury to decide whether to bring charges against Mr. Wilson.

The goal of pattern-and-practice investigations is to determine whether a department’s officers are properly trained and supervised on the fair treatment of people, including suspects. Even when they find evidence of generalized misconduct, such investigations are typically resolved through court-approved consent decrees, meaning the department agrees to additional oversight as it makes changes to procedures.

If the two sides cannot agree on terms of a settlement, the Justice Department may file a lawsuit. In some cases, a pattern-and-practice inquiry ends with no action taken by federal authorities.

Such probes were made possible by a 1994 federal law spurred by the police beating of motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles and the subsequent rioting when the officers charged in that case were acquitted.

The Obama administration has ramped up pattern-and-practice investigations, probing police departments at a faster pace than its predecessors. In recent months, officials have advanced these probes against a large New York City jail, the Newark, N.J., police department, and the Albuquerque, N.M., police department.

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