WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is urging Attorney General Eric Holder to delve deeper into possible civil rights violations in the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and to press for more accountability by police in communicating information to the public.
In a Friday letter to Holder, the commission expressed support for the Department of Justice's investigation of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager killed by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9, but called for more extensive scrutiny of the excessive police response to the subsequent protests.
In particular, the commission requested that the Department of Justice examine the racial discrepancies between Ferguson's residents and the city's police force, writing that they "may be related, directly or indirectly, to the tension between concerned citizens and local government." While over 60 percent of Ferguson's residents are black, only three out of its 53 police officers and only one of its six city council members are black.
The police force also has a history of racial profiling: Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites. Racial profiling contributed to the city of St. Louis' police chief's decision to remove his officers from assisting the Ferguson police.
The commission also condemned the police's often violent treatment of journalists. Throughout the week, reporters have been arrested, attacked with tear gas and repeatedly barred from covering the protests.
"Tear gas attacks, mass arrests, and assaults on accredited journalists do not respect the right of assembly and the First Amendment rights of the press. They are wholly inappropriate in our democracy," the commission wrote in the letter. "Consequently, we urge strongly that the Department and the local U.S. Attorney’s office are empowered to take whatever steps are necessary and appropriate to protect the constitutional rights of the citizens of Ferguson."
Below is the letter approved by the commission, a bipartisan agency dedicated to investigating and advancing civil rights issues:
Dear Attorney General Holder:
The United States Commission on Civil Rights (hereafter “the Commission”) has profound concerns regarding the recent and continuing events in Ferguson, Missouri, and urge strong and bold action by the Department to protect the civil rights of the citizens of Ferguson.
We understand that the Department has opened an investigation into the police shooting death of Michael Brown, who witnesses say was an unarmed African American man. We strongly support your Department’s inquiry into the circumstances of his shooting. We also commend the efforts of the Department’s Community Relations Service to work with city officials and the community to help calm tensions in Ferguson.
We urge the Department to insist on full transparency and disclosure by the Ferguson police department to the citizens of Ferguson on all aspects of the investigation. In addition, we are also concerned about reports of other potential violations of civil liberties and civil rights in Ferguson over the past few days. Tear gas attacks, mass arrests, and assaults on accredited journalists do not respect the right of assembly and the First Amendment rights of the press. They are wholly inappropriate in our democracy. Consequently, we strongly urge that the Department and the local U.S. Attorney’s office are empowered to take whatever steps are necessary and appropriate to protect the constitutional rights of the citizens of Ferguson.
In addition, we request that the Justice Department examine the apparent lack of representation of the City’s majority African American community in the police department and local government. If media reports are correct that there are only 3 African American police officers in the Ferguson police force and only 1 African American city councilman out of 6, we believe this warrants intensive and close scrutiny by the Civil Rights Division. The disproportionate lack of representation in the police force and local government are not only a cause of concern, but may be related, directly or indirectly, to the tension between concerned citizens and local government.
We applaud the statements made by President Obama on August 14, 2014. All Americans are concerned with the events in Ferguson and desire that justice be done in accordance with fundamental principles of civil liberties and civil rights.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.
Clarification: This article initially contained a draft version of the letter. It has been replaced with the final version.