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US clears officer in Ferguson case, criticizes police force

March 5, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department will not prosecute a white former police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old whose death in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked weeks of protests and ignited an intense national debate over how police treat African-Americans. But the government released a scathing report Wednesday that faulted the city for racial bias.

The decision in the August 9 shooting had been expected, in part because of the high legal standard needed for a federal civil rights prosecution. Former officer Darren Wilson, who has said Brown struck him in the face and reached for his gun during a tussle, also had been cleared by a Missouri grand jury in November and later resigned from the department. The grand jury decision prompted street protests that turned violent.

Federal officials concluded there was no evidence to disprove testimony by Wilson’s, that he feared for his safety, nor was there reliable evidence that Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.

The Brown family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said the family was not surprised but very disappointed, and one of Brown’s uncles, Charles Ewing, said he believed Wilson was “getting away with it.”

A separate report issued Wednesday said blacks in Ferguson are disproportionately subject to excessive police force, baseless traffic stops and citations for infractions as petty as walking down the middle of the street.

The Justice Department issued more than two dozen recommendations to improve the closely aligned police department and court system, including training officers to de-escalate confrontations and better oversight of its recruiting, hiring and promotion procedures.

Federal officials on Wednesday said there were already signs of improvement.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said the city had cooperated with the Justice Department and has made some changes, including a diversity training program for city employees.

Similarly broad federal civil rights investigations of troubled police departments have led to the appointment of independent monitors and mandated overhauls in the most fundamental of police practices. The Justice Department maintains the right to sue a police department if officials balk at making changes, though many investigations resolve the issue with both sides negotiating a blueprint for change known as a consent decree.

“It’s quite evident that change is coming down the pike. This is encouraging,” said John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist. “It’s so unfortunate that Michael Brown had to be killed. But in spite of that, I feel justice is coming.”

Others said the federal government’s findings confirmed what they had long known and should lead to change in the police department leadership.

The findings of the investigation, which began weeks after Brown’s killing last August, were released as Attorney General Eric Holder prepares to leave his job following a six-year tenure that focused largely on civil rights. The report is based on interviews with police leaders and residents, a review of more than 35,000 pages of police records and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests.

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