Another heated national conversation has begun, following the decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
There will be talk, lots of talk, as the United States grapples once more with questions about racial tensions, police force and political will. There will also be action, on and off the streets.
Some next steps appear to be all but certain. A Justice Department inquiry into the Ferguson Police Department is bound to draft reform ideas. Other options appear more remote, including federal civil rights charges against Wilson.
Still other possibilities could play out over time, and in individual ways. More law enforcement agencies, for instance, could start mandating use of body cameras.
“I think that body cameras are likely, given several police departments have adopted them around the country,” Jeannine Bell, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said in an email interview Tuesday, while adding that “a national police commission and racial profiling changes, though potentially helpful, seem unlikely.”
For political oddsmakers, here’s one version of the early line.
The Justice Department-guided reform of the Ferguson Police Department:
Attorney General Eric Holder on Sept. 4 initiated an investigation into the Ferguson department. Conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, this investigation is searching for evidence of a “pattern or practice” of discriminatory behavior.
Holder likes these sorts of investigations. His department has opened more than twice as many as were opened during the five years that preceded his taking office, and 14 so far have led to enforceable agreements with police departments in cities including Seattle.
“I think that it’s most likely that there will be reforms in the municipal court system and in the use of traffic stops,” Peter A. Joy, a professor at the Washington University School of Law, said in an interview Tuesday, adding that there could be “a greater effort to have a more diverse police force.”
Bills introduced, hearings held
It doesn’t take much to introduce legislation or to conduct a hearing. Both actions can serve several purposes. They can air ideas, show solidarity and promote an agenda.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was first out of the box, announcing a Dec. 9 subcommittee hearing on “the state of civil and human rights” in the United States.
A wrongful death suit
After a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder charges, family members of the two victims filed a civil wrongful death suit against the former football star. Such cases face a lower burden of proof, and in 1997 a civil jury found Simpson liable and ordered him to pay $33.5 million.
Michael Brown’s family has retained attorney Benjamin Crump, who previously filed a wrongful death suit following the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. No lawsuit has yet been announced in the Brown case, but Crump has previously said the Brown family is considering one.
“The legacy of Michael Brown should not just be that we make a lot of noise,” Crump said Tuesday.
Federal civil rights charges against Wilson.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors have been conducting a parallel investigation since August into the shooting of Brown. In theory, this investigation could lead to federal civil rights charges and prison time.
The Justice Department, for instance, brought civil rights charges against five New Orleans police officers charged with killing two and wounding four following Hurricane Katrina. The convictions were vacated and a new trial ordered last year due to prosecutorial misconduct. The Justice Department is appealing the order.
It’s rare, though, for federal prosecutors to pursue such civil rights charges, as they face hurdles including proving the officer intended to violate the constitutionally protected rights of the victim.
“Although federal civil rights law imposes a high legal bar in these types of cases, we have resisted forming premature conclusions,” Holder said Monday night.
Legislative restrictions on racial profiling
Several bills have been introduced in Congress to prohibit law enforcement agents or agencies from engaging in racial profiling, and the white Ferguson police officer’s shooting of the African-American teenager has prompted more debate on the topic.
“We will remain steadfast in our fight to pass the End Racial Profiling legislation,” declared Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But in a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, all 59 of the House bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats; in the Senate, which will shift to GOP control next year, all 17 co-sponsors are Democrats. Eighteen months after the bills were introduced this Congress, neither has even had a hearing.
Hit or miss
Some ideas floated post-Ferguson could find traction within law enforcement agencies.
Civil rights groups, for instance, are now championing wider use of body-worn cameras, to provide video evidence of police encounters with civilians. A 2013 study conducted at the Rialto Police Department in California found a “significant” reduction in use of force by camera-wearing officers.
Still, a Justice Department-funded survey in 2013 found 75 percent of responding law enforcement agencies did not deploy officers wearing cameras. Many agencies cited a lack of uniform standards, with cost for both equipment and data storage also an issue, according to the Police Executive Research Forum study.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has voiced interest in using federal resources to encourage use of body cameras, which can cost upward of $1,000 each.
“We definitely need cameras,” Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.