Attorney General Holder Delivers Remarks at Press Conference Announcing Pattern or Practice Investigation into Ferguson Police Department
Washington, D.C. ~ Thursday, September 4, 2014
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good afternoon. I am joined today by (Acting) Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Molly Moran and Director Ron Davis, of the Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS – Office. We are here to announce the latest steps in the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to address the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the surrounding communities.
As you know, our federal civil rights investigation into the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown remains open and very active. As I made clear during my visit to Ferguson two weeks ago, this investigation will take time. But the American people can have confidence that it will be fair, it will be thorough, and it will be independent.
Over the course of that visit, I had the chance to speak with a number of local residents. I heard from them directly about the deep mistrust that has taken hold between law enforcement officials and members of the community. In meetings and listening sessions – as well as informal conversations – people consistently expressed concerns stemming from specific alleged incidents, from general policing practices, and from the lack of diversity on Ferguson’s police force.
These anecdotal accounts underscored the history of mistrust of law enforcement in Ferguson that has received a good deal of attention. As a result of this history – and following an extensive review of documented allegations and other available data – we have determined that there is cause for the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Ferguson Police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
This investigation will be carried out by a team from the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section – some of the same dedicated professionals who have achieved historic results in ensuring constitutional policing from coast to coast. Over the past five years, the Civil Rights Division has prosecuted over 300 individual officers for misconduct. We have opened 20 pattern or practice investigations into police departments across the country. That’s more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five years. And we’re enforcing 14 agreements to reform law enforcement practices at agencies both large and small. With these agreements, we have seen dramatic decreases in excessive uses of force; greater equity in the delivery of police services, including important measures to address bias; and, most significantly, increased confidence by communities in their law enforcement agencies.
As the brother of a retired police officer, I know that the overwhelming majority of our brave men and women in uniform do their jobs honorably, with integrity, and often at great personal risk. The Civil Rights Division’s efforts are simply meant to ensure that law enforcement officers in every part of the U.S. live up to those same high standards of professionalism. In Ferguson, our investigation will assess the police department’s use of force, including deadly force. It will analyze stops, searches, and arrests. And it will examine the treatment of individuals detained at Ferguson’s city jail, in addition to other potentially discriminatory policing techniques and tactics that are brought to light.
We have met with the Mayor, City Manager and Police Chief in Ferguson. They have welcomed the investigation and pledged complete cooperation. This investigation will be conducted both rigorously and in a timely manner, so we can move forward as expeditiously as possible to restore trust, rebuild understanding, and foster cooperation between law enforcement and community members. At the same time, I want to make very clear that – as this investigation unfolds and evolves – we will follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead. And if, at any point, we find reason to expand our inquiry to include additional police forces in neighboring jurisdictions, we will not hesitate to do so.
In fact, I can also announce today that – above and beyond our investigation in Ferguson – we are taking proactive steps to engage the St. Louis County Police Department in what’s known as a “collaborative reform effort.” This partnership is being led by the COPS Office, working closely with St. Louis County officials to conduct a comprehensive assessment. The St. Louis County Police Chief has voluntarily accepted the collaborative reform process and has also asked that the COPS Office conduct an After Action Report on their response to recent demonstrations. And already, with the cooperation of St. Louis County leaders, we have identified priority areas for intensive review and technical assistance – including racial profiling; stops, searches, and frisking; the handling of mass demonstrations by police officials; and law enforcement training both at the police academy and at the continuing professional level.
Because St. Louis County administers training programs for officers throughout the area – including members of the Ferguson Police Department – it makes sense to include the county police department as part of our comprehensive approach to confronting the challenges we’ve seen in that region.
I want to be clear: this is not a stopgap or a short-term solution. It’s a long-term strategy, founded on community policing, that will provide a detailed roadmap to build trust; to bolster public safety; to ensure accountability; and to change the way that law enforcement leaders make decisions, implement policies, and forge community partnerships. And our track record proves that such efforts to reform policing practices can be tremendously successful.
For example, in 2012, the COPS Office and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department completed an eight-month review similar to the collaboration we are launching today with the St. Louis County Police Department. The Las Vegas review resulted in 75 findings and concrete recommendations regarding officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force issues. To date, fully 95 percent of these recommendations have been adopted. And police agencies in two other jurisdictions are going through similar processes as we speak.
When I visited Ferguson two weeks ago, I promised that the U.S. Department of Justice would continue to stand with the people there long after the national headlines had faded. Today, with our investigation into the Ferguson Police Department and our reform efforts in St. Louis County, we’re taking significant steps to keep that promise. As these efforts unfold, my colleagues and I will keep working with the people in Ferguson to ensure that a fair, thorough investigation occurs; to see that dialogue can be translated into concrete action; and to facilitate lasting, positive change – that brings together police officials, civil rights leaders, and members of the public – to bridge gaps and build understanding.
This won’t always be easy. But I know that, together, we can and will meet this challenge.
Before we move to questions, there have been court decisions announced today in two separate but very important cases on which I would like to briefly comment.
First, we are pleased that the district court in New Orleans has found that the largest oil spill in U.S. history was caused by BP’s gross negligence and willful misconduct. The court’s findings will ensure that the company is held fully accountable for its recklessness. This case, which was vigorously pursued by the United States’ stellar legal team, marks another significant step forward in the Justice Department’s continuing efforts to seek justice on behalf of the American people for this disaster. And we are confident this decision will serve as a strong deterrent to anyone tempted to sacrifice safety and the environment in the pursuit of profit.
Second, in Ohio, a district court has held that the plaintiffs challenging the State of Ohio’s changes to its in-person early voting rules likely will be able to prove that those changes are unconstitutional. The Justice Department had filed a Statement of Interest in this case. And today’s outcome represents a milestone in our effort to continue to protect voting rights even after the Supreme Court’s deeply misguided decision in Shelby County.
I am pleased to note that today’s decision, and the judge’s analysis, rests on some of the same legal reasoning that underlies the Department’s pending challenges to voting measures in Texas and North Carolina under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. And as we move forward, my colleagues and I will continue to do everything in our power to aggressively defend access to the ballot box and ensure that every American can exercise his or her right to participate in the democratic process, unencumbered by unnecessary restrictions that discourage, discriminate, or disenfranchise.
At this time, we would be happy to take your questions.