The Justice Department (DoJ) is launching a sweeping investigation into the Ferguson police department, Attorney General Eric Holder announced today.
The civil rights probe, which comes on the heels of a month of protests following the shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, will look into patterns of stops and arrests, the use of force, and police training — as well as the treatment of people held in Ferguson's city jail — to determine whether discrimination played a factor in police behavior there.
The latest investigation, carried out by the department's civil rights division, is in addition to the inquiry the DoJ is already undertaking into Brown's shooting on August 9. Holder said that investigation is "very active" but "will take time."
A local grand jury is also hearing evidence on the case and is set to decide whether to charge Wilson.
"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 US Constitution or federal law," Holder said. He added that "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."
The DoJ is already working with the Saint Louis County Police Department on what Holder called a "collaborative reform effort."
The Ferguson and Saint Louis County Police Departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson told reporters ahead of the announcement that he welcomed the probe.
"I'm confident that we're going to come out ok," he said. "I'm not concerned about what it will reveal because although there may be some things that are revealed that we are unaware of that may be embarrassing to us somehow, still if in the end it improves our relationship with the community, our ability to do quality police work then it's a good thing."
In a statement released on Thursday, the Saint Louis County Police Department said the review would allow DoJ officials "to assess the operations of the department" and provide "best practice recommendations" from experts.
"I am proud of our legacy of high standards. The most effective way to ensure we adhere to our own rigorous standards of performance is to have an objective party review our operations on a regular basis," Police Chief Jon Belmar said in the statement. "I welcome any process that improves the department."
The vast majority of people VICE News spoke to during the Ferguson protests had a personal story of negative encounters with police. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general's office found that the local police department arrested black drivers almost twice as often as white ones.
"I have a problem with the police chief saying that this department is not racist. If you have to declare you're not racist…" Ferguson resident Pamela Merri-Weather told VICE News last month, referring to the local police department.
"I watch it every day, I see it all the time," she added. "They do more traffic stops than they do walking the beat. They can pull you up for a traffic stop, but you need to be in the neighborhood with people, walking about. People are more afraid to drive down the street than to walk down the street."
Merri-Weather, who moved to the St. Louis suburb from the city, said she used to fear her son would get involved in gangs. In Ferguson, she said that she only feared the police.
Ferguson — a majority black suburb — has only three black officers out of 53. Holder said today that discussing diversity in the force was "not off the table" and that the DoJ would make recommendations in that regard, if necessary.
Rallying with the slogan "no justice, no peace," protesters have pledged to keep taking to the streets of Ferguson until Wilson is indicted and tried — with some promising a fight should he "get off." While the protests have grown smaller and more sporadic in recent weeks, they have not disappeared, and many protesters are saying they won't stop.
Holder visited Ferguson at the peak of the protests last month. On that occasion, he said he hoped his presence there would help calm tensions and "give people some degree of confidence that the appropriate things are being done by their federal government."
People in Ferguson were initially critical of the subdued federal response to their demands for justice — with several protesters calling on President Obama to "come to Ferguson."
"My visit to Ferguson affected me greatly," Holder wrote later. "I had the chance to meet with the family of Michael Brown. I spoke to them not just as attorney general, but as a father with a teenage son myself. They, like so many in Ferguson, want answers."
"As the brother of a retired police officer, I know firsthand that our men and women in uniform perform their duties in the face of tremendous threats and significant personal risk," he also added. "They put their lives on the line every day, and they often have to make split-second decisions. But in my conversations with dozens of people in Ferguson, it was clear that this shooting incident has brought to the surface underlying tensions that have existed for some time; tensions with a history that still simmers in communities across the country."
Holder said today his visit in Ferguson affected him in a "very personal way."
The DoJ started investigating police departments' patterns of constitutional and federal rights violations after the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who beat him.
Under Holder's tenure, the department has launched 20 "pattern and practice" reviews of police departments — twice as many as under his predecessor — and prosecuted more than 300 individual officers for misconduct, he said.
In April, the DoJ slammed the Albuquerque Police Department with a harsh report for its pattern of excessive use of force. Protesters there had been taking to the streets to rally against police brutality after a number of unarmed people were killed by police over the years.
In 2012, the Justice Department also opened an investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch patroller George Zimmerman — a case with many parallels to Brown's shooting in Ferguson. That investigation is still ongoing, Holder said today.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi