It was a troubling sign of continuing racial unrest when rioting, looting and arson in Ferguson, Mo., followed Monday’s announcement that a grand jury declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
We can only hope that tempers will calm and the 21,000-resident St. Louis suburb can see peace.
At the same time, the unrest and largely peaceful demonstrations in New York. Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., highlight a racial divide across the U.S. with regard to police action.
The hopeful sign for Ferguson is that steps now being taken could lead to reforms that will repair poor relationships between its minority residents and police. It won’t happen quickly, but the community has opportunities to move forward.
One of those opportunities, ironically, comes in the form of Justice Department investigations in response to Brown’s death and the unruly protests that followed.
Federal prosecutors will determine whether there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson intended to violate Brown’s civil rights, but this is not likely to lead to prosecution.
Only about 2 percent of similar civil-rights investigations make it that far.
But the second Justice Department inquiry, announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in September, is of a type that has produced meaningful recommendations to help police forces elsewhere.
There are deep divides between the races on attitudes toward police and their use of force. Blacks and whites also disagree about the need to further discuss issues of race in the wake of the Ferguson shooting.
A poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and USA Today, conducted in August shortly after the shooting, showed that 70 percent of blacks “say police departments around the country do a poor job in holding officers accountable for misconduct” and “an identical percentage says they do a poor job of treating racial and ethnic groups equally.”
Only about 37 percent of whites hold similar attitudes.
Similarly, Pew found in a separate poll that 80 percent of African-Americans “say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion.”
Forty-seven percent of whites “say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.”
A broad investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will focus on the Ferguson Police Department’s use of force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and treatment of jail detainees.
Blacks make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population but last year drove 86 percent of the vehicles stopped by the city’s police. Compared with white drivers, African-Americans were twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested.
The Civil Rights Division has conducted similar investigations, which can take years, in cities including Albuquerque, Miami and Newark, N.J.
In Albuquerque, the investigation began in November 2012 after a request from the City Council.
In a letter dated April 10 of this year, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said the work discovered “a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The letter blamed “structural problems” in the Police Department, including “insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies” resulting in “a culture of indifference to constitutional policing.”
“Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others,” Samuels wrote. “Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”
The letter had 46 recommendations for reform, including specific suggestions for use-of-force policies, training, internal investigations, supervision and recruitment.
The similar investigation in Ferguson might yield quite different findings. Still, it should be encouraging to the city’s residents that such a thorough outside study is being conducted and that specific problems will result in specific recommendations for improvement.