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What Washington Can, And Can't, Do In Ferguson


It's been nine days since an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer. A private autopsy, conducted at the request of Brown's family, showed that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. A medical examiner working with the Justice Department will conduct another independent autopsy. At the White House today, President Obama met with Attorney General Eric Holder and outlined his next steps.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The attorney general, himself, will be traveling to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with the FBI agents and the DOJ personnel conducting the federal criminal investigation, and he will receive an update from them on their progress. He will also be meeting with other leaders in the community whose support is so critical to bringing about peace and calm in Ferguson.

CORNISH: Joining us to talk more about the federal investigation is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And, Carrie, first what more do we know about the Justice Department probe?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Justice Department has a really limited role here, Audie. Murder is, generally, not prosecuted in the federal system, So the only jurisdictional hook the Justice Department has is whether the police officer violated Michael Brown's civil rights in this shooting. And in order to make that case, they have to prove the officer, Darren Wilson, intended to use more force than a reasonable person would. That's a really big challenge for federal prosecutors. They have to delve into details such as what the officer said and did at the time - what was in his brain. And now the Attorney General is going to go to Ferguson later this week and hear more about witness statements and where things stand with that probe.

CORNISH: So that's the challenge for federal prosecutors, but are there other steps the federal government can take short of going to court?

JOHNSON: Other steps and, in fact, many of those are now underway. Authorities have already sent community relations officials to Ferguson to try to sooth tensions. This is part of a unit that was started in 1964 during the civil rights struggles in the American South. And they're also offering locals advice about community policing - what strategies work for crowd control - which strategies don't. And the DOJ official in charge of community policing is also going down to Ferguson this week.

CORNISH: Crowd control has become such an issue here, given the criticisms of the way the local police have dealt with protesters, deploying tear gas and pointing weapons at unarmed people. What's the administration saying about that?

JOHNSON: The president says there's no excuse for excessive force by police and that there's a big difference between civilian and military law enforcement. That difference, he says, helps preserve American civil liberties. He sounded pretty open today to reviewing federal programs that send equipment in grant money to law enforcement. And that echoes what members of Congress have been saying for the last several days. The president does say it's important to protect the right to protest, but he said we shouldn't fall under the influence of a small group of people - many of them not from Ferguson - who are looting and raising tensions and undermining justice there.

CORNISH: Now, Carrie, at the White House today, President Obama also talked about a gulf of mistrust between police and African-Americans. Now, what, if anything, can the administration do about that?

JOHNSON: Well, on the level of the Justice Department - over the last few days, I've been speaking to civil rights lawyers who used to work there. They expect, at some point, the DOJ is going to launch another investigation in Ferguson. This one would look at the conduct of local and county police - how they've handled crowd control and reporters and how the force has about 50 officers but only three of them are African-American. That's what's known as a pattern or practice of discriminatory action investigation. And it's a conversation not just in Ferguson, the Attorney General says, but also in many other places around the country.

CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.