A St. Louis County grand jury declined Monday to indict white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. The decision resolves one aspect of the case, but additional investigations remain and the community for months has been bracing for demonstrations in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision.
A look at some of the likely next steps in Ferguson:
Q. What other investigations are underway?
A: The FBI and the Justice Department are continuing to investigate the shooting for potential civil rights violations. Investigators would need to satisfy a rigorous standard of proof in order to mount a prosecution. Whereas the county grand jury could consider multiple charges, Justice Department lawyers have a single focus: whether it can be shown that Wilson willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights. That is a difficult burden to meet, especially considering the wide latitude given to police officers in using deadly force. Some other past high-profile police shootings, including the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo in New York City, did not result in federal prosecutions.
Q. What about broader allegations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Ferguson police department?
A: Beyond the shooting itself, the Justice Department is conducting a wide-reaching investigation into the practices of the entire department. That investigation is focusing on stops, searches and arrests and generally looking for patterns of discrimination within the overwhelmingly white department. It has the potential to require major changes in the policing methods of the Ferguson force. Such broader reviews typically rely on data and interviews in the community and can take far longer than a criminal investigation.
The Justice Department has initiated roughly 20 investigations of troubled police departments in the past five years, or more than twice the number undertaken in the five years before that.
And regardless of the outcome of the criminal investigation, there’s also the potential that Brown’s family could file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wilson.
Q: How long might these other investigations go on?
A: The Justice Department has not set a timeline for either investigation, though outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has said he expects the federal investigation into the shooting to be concluded before he leaves office. He said late Monday that that investigation was independent of the local probe, and that “we have avoided prejudging any of the evidence.”
Q: How will authorities deal with any protests?
A: President Barack Obama appealed for calm and understanding Monday after the no-indictment announcement, saying the country needed “to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” Holder, too, said the decision should not lead to violence. Even so, within minutes of the announcement, crowds in the streets of Ferguson shattered windows, vandalized cars and taunted police while officers released smoke and pepper spray to disperse the gatherings.
In anticipation of the protests, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pre-emptively declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. Gun sales surged before the grand jury decision and some shop owners boarded up their stores. A federal law enforcement team has been working with top commanders in Ferguson and from neighboring police departments to help reduce tensions and build trust.
Q: Are there longer-term efforts to deal with underlying problems?
A: Nixon several days ago named 16 members to a panel aimed at helping the community heal after the shooting. The commission, which will study underlying social and economic conditions, is expected to make recommendations in a report due by September 2015.