Bloomberg News

Obama Sending Holder to Ferguson Amid Federal Probe

August 18, 2014

Protests in Ferguson

A woman has her face doused with milk after being tear gassed by police as she was protesting Michael Brown's shooting death by police, in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 17, 2014. Photographer: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

President Barack Obama said he has dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with federal and local authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by police has sparked days of protests and violence.

Obama again urged calm in Ferguson, where protesters have taken to the streets daily for the past week calling for the police officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown to be charged with murder.

“While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos,” Obama said at the White House. “It undermines rather than advancing justice.”

Obama spoke after meeting with Holder and other advisers today at the White House on the situation in the St. Louis suburb, after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops into the town to restore order. Obama said he also spoke with Nixon today by telephone.

The administration has limited legal options in responding to the unrest that has engulfed the Missouri town. While the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown, any resolution of that inquiry is likely to be a long way off.

Federal Interest

Today’s White House meeting and the announcement that Holder would go to Missouri are designed to show the department is aggressively investigating the case, and may be followed by additional public steps, said Matt Miller, Holder’s former top spokesman.

“The Justice Department’s main role in a situation like this is to calm the waters by assuring the community that there will be a full, independent, credible investigation,” said Miller, now a crisis communications consultant.

Obama’s remarks were calibrated to show the federal government’s interest in the case without reaching conclusions.

“I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed,” Obama said. “I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.”

Holder, in a statement, said he’s also sending to Ferguson several Justice Department officials with expertise in community relations and crowd control.

Seeking Patience

The attorney general asked for “public patience as we conduct this investigation” and said information will be withheld by the department for now “to preserve the integrity” of its probe.

The Justice Department so far has been reluctant to take over the investigation into the shooting, to ensure that local authorities are accountable for handling potential police misconduct.

“They have some tools they can use, but it would be better for the locals to handle it,” said Roscoe Howard, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Howard said he could see Nixon appointing a special prosecutor. “That would remove some of the politics from it.”

A St. Louis County grand jury may begin hearing evidence as early as Wednesday, according to Ed Magee, a spokesman for the country prosecutors’ office. Evidence is still being collected and the probe is “far from being finished,” so there’s no timeline for the case, he said.

Brown Autopsy

A preliminary autopsy made public by lawyers for Brown’s family shows he was struck at least six times by bullets from the officer’s pistol. At least two of the shots hit Brown in the head, former New York City chief medical examiner Michael Baden, who conducted the examination, said today at a news conference in St. Louis.

An official autopsy by the St. Louis county medical examiner hasn’t been released.

Attempts by local officials to quell violence haven’t been successful. After organized groups attacked police officers with firearms and gasoline bombs last night, Nixon ordered the state National Guard into the town.

“Molotov cocktails were thrown, there were shootings, looting, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous,” said Captain Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. No police officers were injured, he said at a news conference early today.

Riot Gear

Police in riot gear “came out in tanks and started shooting,” said Lisha Williams, a 45-year-old from St. Louis who was in a crowd of protesters yesterday as the gas was deployed. “My face is still burning.”

Miller said it was unlikely the Obama administration would move to directly take over local law enforcement with steps such as by federalizing the National Guard.

“The reason you federalize the National Guard is when you have a state that’s intransigent like during the 1960s and the governor won’t take action,” he said. “That’s not been the case here.”

Any civil rights investigation will take time because prosecutors must meet a difficult standard to prevail if they charge the police officer involved with violation, said William Yeomans, a 24-year veteran former attorney in the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

‘Specific Intent’

“Those are tough cases, though not impossible,” said Yeomans, now a law professor at American University in Washington. “The federal government has to show the officer acted with specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, and that’s difficult.”

“Those are tough cases, though not impossible,” said Yeomans, now a law professor at American University in Washington. “The federal government has to show the officer acted with specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, and that’s difficult.”

Calling for a “distinction” between the police and the military,

Obama also said he’d support a review of spending by and for law enforcement agencies to equip them with military gear in the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need,” Obama said. “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net; Toluse Olorunnipa in Ferguson, Missouri, at tolorunnipa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net Joe Sobczyk


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