Justice Department probe of the Ferguson, Mo., department echoes investigations here

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department launched a broad investigation Thursday into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting last month of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer.

The investigation, which goes beyond an existing federal probe into the Aug. 9 shooting, will look for patterns of discrimination within the predominantly white department and focus on how officers use force, search and arrest suspects, and treat inmates at the city jail. The police department said it welcomed the investigation.

The inquiry is part of a broader Justice Department effort to investigate troubled police departments and, when pervasive problems are found, direct changes to be made. The department says it has investigated 20 police departments for a variety of systemic misconduct in the past five years, more than twice the number of cases opened in the previous five years.

The Warren police department understands what it’s like to be under a federal microscope. The Justice Department was called in a decade ago to act as a watchdog over local police after a series of excessive force and illegal search complaints were made against city officers. The department was twice probed in the early 2000s after complaints of police brutality from black arrestees.

“We saw the Department of Justice for the first time in 2004 and they said ‘we have issues with what you are doing,'” remarked Traci Timko Rose, assistant city prosecutor for a Tribune Chronicle story published in March.

In 2003, Lyndal Kimble of Warren was arrested on charges of felonious assault, resisting arrest, tampering with evidence and felonious possession of drugs. Kimble made national headlines when he claimed he was beaten by police, with a videotape of the arrest by one of Kimble’s neighbors showing three officers struggling with him before Kimble was thrown onto a cruiser and then to the ground before being sprayed with a chemical repellent.

Kimble is black, and all three arresting officers were white.

The Youngstown FBI bureau dropped the probe into the case in early 2004 after Kimble refused to talk to investigators. Kimble later received an undisclosed settlement from a federal civil rights lawsuit with the city of Warren.

In 2001, LaMont Murray of Warren filed a complaint against two officers after he claimed excessive force was used in his arrest during a routine traffic stop. Murray claimed police used pepper spray on him and beat him after pulling over his car. The police report stated Murray refused to leave the car and punched one of the officers in the chest before being subdued after a brief struggle. Murray said that he needed 20 staples in his head to close a gash caused by police during the struggle.

Murray is black and the two arresting officers were white.

In the resulting investigation, both officers were cleared by an internal investigation and a follow-up independent probe by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the investigative arm of the state Attorney General’s office.

Despite being cleared by state investigators, the Justice Department stepped in to monitor Warren police actions and institute new policy and paperwork changes and provide mandatory training sessions for all officers. The federal department continues to monitor use of force locally, said police Chief Eric Merkel in February.

Likewise, the Justice Department says it will work with the St. Louis County police department, which trains officers from Ferguson and other local departments, to review the use of force, the handling of mass demonstrations and other aspects of policing. At the request of the county police department, federal authorities will also conduct a report on the department’s response to the two weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations that followed the shooting.

The FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation into the shooting and a local grand jury is also evaluating the case.

The investigation announced Thursday will focus on a police department that is predominantly white, even though Ferguson is about 70 percent black. Some in Ferguson have said police disproportionately target black motorists during traffic stops, something U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said particularly concerned him. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general’s office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as often as white motorists but were also less likely to find contraband among the black drivers.

In a statement, the Ferguson police department said it supported the investigation and was working to earn back “the trust of our residents and our neighbors.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.