Attorney General Eric Holder says federal investigators have already conducted interviews with eyewitnesses to the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Mo., even as he pledged new assistance from the Justice Department to quell "extreme displays of force" and militarization by heavily armed local police there.
"It is clear that the scenes playing out in the streets of Ferguson over the last several nights cannot continue," Holder said.
In his first, detailed remarks since the police-involved shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown last Saturday, the attorney general described the burgeoning federal response.
A civil rights investigation into Brown's death — led by federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Missouri, civil rights lawyers in Washington, and the FBI — has been announced. Holder spoke by phone Thursday with Brown's family, a law enforcement source said, and promised that the investigation would be thorough and independent.
The Justice Department is taking two additional steps, Holder said.
First, the Community Relations Service, a peacemaking and reconciliation unit set up to mediate civil rights struggles in the 1960s in the American South, has dispatched officials to Missouri to meet with law enforcement, civic, and faith leaders to try to reduce tensions.
"Over time, these conversations should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities," Holder said, nodding to local concerns that the Ferguson police force is overwhelmingly white and male.
Missouri's attorney general has cited the force in a report for stopping African-Americans twice as often as whites, and the local NAACP has complained about similar practices by the St. Louis County police.
Holder also said local authorities have accepted his offer of technical assistance from other parts of the Justice Department "in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessary and extreme displays of force."
Protesters say they've been hit by wooden and rubber bullets from SWAT teams in riot gear, who have filled the streets with armored vehicles and tear gas.
"This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who spoke with Holder by phone Thursday.
The attorney general said in his statement that he wants to reduce tension, not heighten it.
"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," he added.
Holder denounced episodes of looting and attempts to "antagonize" the heavily armed local police, but he urged authorities in the St. Louis suburb to do more to respect the rights of protesters and reporters covering the unrest.
Holder offered no deadline for the federal civil rights investigation. But one person familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity because the matter is pending said U.S. authorities had already interviewed Dorian Johnson, who told reporters he was standing nearby when a policeman shot his friend Michael Brown.
Prominent civil and human rights advocates are calling on the Justice Department to do even more. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, urged the attorney general "to undertake a comprehensive federal review of each instance of police violence against African-Americans."
Ifill's letter mentioned several recent police-involved deaths of unarmed black men that have undermined public confidence in the justice system. She said racial bias training and body cameras for police could help restore trust.
"Violent deaths like Michael Brown's happen all too frequently and will continue to occur without meaningful accountability," Ifill wrote. "The DOJ must utilize its substantial resources to take significant, proactive steps to curb police violence on communities of color."