Several options await the Justice Department inquiry that Attorney General Eric Holder will see firsthand Wednesday in embattled Ferguson, Mo., where he will meet with law enforcement authorities investigating the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The most emphatic outcome, a potential federal civil rights prosecution of the police officer who shot the unarmed teenager, may also be the least probable, because of the standards of proof required.
“Even if you have very motivated FBI agents and prosecutors, they are very tough cases to bring,” Robert N. Driscoll, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview Tuesday. “I think that’s unlikely, in the end.”
But with an estimated 40 FBI special agents and other Justice Department officials now fanning out across Ferguson, another, broader kind of federal case could result from Brown’s death and the revelations that have followed. Through a special unit, the department could launch a wide-ranging investigation into a “pattern or practice” of behavior by local law enforcement agencies.
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“I think that’s an entirely possible scenario,” Driscoll said.
Led by the Special Litigation Section, part of the department’s Civil Rights Division, previous pattern-or-practice investigations have targeted alleged problems at the Family Court of St. Louis County, the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico and the Miami Police Department, among others.
The investigations take time, and they go deep.
One of the Special Litigation Section’s stated priorities is protecting the rights “of people who interact with state or local police or sheriff’s departments.” Since Brown’s shooting, a sometimes harsh light has been cast on the relations between the Ferguson Police Department, three of whose 53 commissioned officers are African-American, and the residents of Ferguson, 67 percent of whom are African-American.
Last year, 86 percent of the cars stopped by Ferguson police officers were being driven by African-Americans, according to the state’s annual racial profiling report. Once pulled over in Ferguson, African-American drivers were twice as likely to be searched, according to the report.
Different, and potentially higher, hurdles face the federal prosecutors who may be contemplating potential criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department officer who shot the unarmed Brown. Criminal prosecution is precisely what some activists and family members are demanding.
“Justice will bring peace,” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, said on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday.
Prosecutors say a Missouri grand jury could begin hearing evidence as soon as Wednesday to determine whether any charges should be filed against the white suburban police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown.
State prosecutors are wading through contradictory narratives as they decide which account to present.