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Ferguson Residents' Mixed Emotions About Justice Department Probe


It has been almost a month since a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. Attorney General Eric Holder now says the Department of Justice will launch a wide-ranging investigation of the Ferguson Police Department's practices, from the use of force to treatment of those in jail. Residents in Ferguson have mixed feelings about this investigation. Here's St. Louis Public Radio's Durrie Bouscaren.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: This story is a variation on a familiar theme - driving home late one night from work, Johnell Williams says he was trailed by a police car and pulled over.

JOHNELL WILLIAMS: Run my driver license and all. Everything was fine. He gave me a ticket for a license plate light. When he drove off, his license plate light was out.

BOUSCAREN: That was three months ago. Today, Williams is getting a haircut at a barbershop just a few blocks away from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. Williams says it's well understood that there are areas of St. Louis County that African-American men avoid at night. The traffic stops are a nuisance, but he really worries about his teenage boys.

WILLIAMS: I don't turn my phone off at night. If I get a call from my sons, I'm panicking.

BOUSCAREN: A recent review by The Washington Post identified at least five Ferguson officers who have been named in federal civil rights lawsuits alleging excessive use of force. According to traffic stop data gathered by Missouri's attorney general, Ferguson police are almost twice as likely to search a person who is black as they are someone who is white. But searches of whites were more likely to turn up contraband in the vehicle or on their person. Although the Department of Justice investigation will focus on Ferguson, Williams says racial profiling and police harassment happen in many parts of St. Louis and beyond.

WILLIAMS: It's not just here in Missouri. It's all over. You know, a lot of people think that. Move away, move away. No matter where you're going or where you go, it's going to be there.

BOUSCAREN: The allegations of systemic bias that led to this investigation don't sit well with some Ferguson officials. Susan Ankenbrand is a former city councilwoman.

SUSAN ANKENBRAND: I don't think that you can give the Ferguson Police Department an across-the-board black-eye for what may be some isolated occurrences.

BOUSCAREN: University of Nebraska professor Sam Walker studies police accountability investigations throughout the country. He says the disproportionate numbers of traffic tickets given to people of color in Ferguson should have been a red flag.

SAM WALKER: They're out of line with other departments. These problems shouldn't be allowed to continue. But they do.

BOUSCAREN: Walker says since 1994, the Department of Justice has identified operational problems and reached settlements with about two-dozen police departments from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. And currently, police in New Orleans and Seattle are undergoing reforms required after similar investigations.

WALKER: In the year 2014, no police department in this country should be in a position where it's likely to be investigated. We know and they know what the problems are. We know what the solutions are. I mean, they can undertake them immediately.

BOUSCAREN: Walker says in most cases, reforms include revising ways for citizens to file formal complaints and new policies for use of force. Ferguson officials released a statement saying the city and its police department are welcoming the investigation, which will look for patterns of discrimination and bias. But they declined to comment further. The St. Louis County Police Department will undergo a separate voluntary review process focusing on regional training practices and the use of force on crowds. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Ferguson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.