Holder at center of storm

 

 

Attorney General Eric Holder is back in a familiar spot: the center of the storm.

Holder, one of Obama’s longest-serving lieutenants, is the administration’s face on the Ferguson, Mo., riots, the news story dominating the airwaves this August.

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The attorney general is spearheading the federal investigation into the killing by police of an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown, whose death has set off more than a week of unrest in the St. Louis suburb.

The circumstances of Brown's shooting by a white police officer identified as Darren Wilson remain a mystery, and police and witnesses have offered different accounts.

Holder, who on Monday released a statement that said he was “troubled” by the “selective release of sensitive information” in the case, faces a delicate task.

People will be looking for Holder to ensure that justice is served, something that could be exceedingly difficult given the passions the incident has churned.

But he must balance the federal response against the risk of further politicizing and inflaming an already fragile situation that touches on race, class, and police powers.

“I realize there is tremendous interest in the facts of the incident that led to Michael Brown’s death, but I ask for the public’s patience as we conduct this investigation,” Holder said.

The attorney general is operating in a unique political environment, with Ferguson dominating headlines less than three months before a midterm election that seems largely a referendum on Obama’s leadership.

Despite those dangers, Holder appears to be fully embracing the challenge in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb, which seems to embody the strained relationships between minority communities and law enforcement that Holder has tried to address during his tenure at the Department of Justice. 

Police have suggested that Brown made a move for Wilson's gun during a confrontation that began when the officer confronted the Missouri teen about jaywalking. Police also released images last week that appeared to show Brown shoplifting $50 in cigars from a convenience store and bullying a shopkeeper, and on Monday, reports surfaced that the teen had marijuana in his system.

The release of information about Brown has drawn harsh criticism, particularly from African-Americans, who say their sons are too often the victims of racial profiling and trigger-happy police.

Brown's parents and other supporters have questioned why the police felt the information was relevant, given that Wilson was initially unaware that the teenager was a robbery suspect. They have accused the predominately white police force of engaging in character assassination.

Both Holder and Obama, the first black men to hold their respective offices, have seen firsthand the risks of weighing in on racially charged criminal justice issues.

“I don't envy he and his team right now,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Nothing they are going to do here will satisfy everyone, if only because racial politics in this country can get so ugly.”

Manley said African-Americans across the country will have high expectations for the response, while many Republicans, particularly on Capitol Hill, “don't trust him at all and will attack anything he does if it appears that he is taking on the police.”

Obama acknowledged the challenge on Monday, saying that addressing historical racial disparities was a “big project.”

“It's one that we've been trying to carry out now for a couple of centuries. And we've made extraordinary progress, but we have not made enough progress,” he said.

Holder has spoken personally to Brown’s parents and has officials from at least six offices within his department on the ground to both investigate the shooting and urge local officials to act more responsibly in handling protesters.

He’s also worked as the point of contact for concerned lawmakers, providing regular updates to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), among others.

Holder’s task is complicated by the real-world demands of the investigation.

“One of the dangers in a situation like this, where the focus is on a criminal investigation and a subsequent criminal process, is raising expectations too much,” said William Yeomans, an American University law professor who spent 24 years working in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. 

“Police shooting cases are extremely difficult to prosecute, and if you raise expectations too much and then decide not to prosecute or the prosecution fails down the road, you can run into trouble.”

The attorney general is also handcuffed to some extent by how much authority he can project on the ground.

“It’s difficult for Holder because this is largely a state and local matter,” said Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law professor who worked as a prosecutor in the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. “He has to prevail on the local law enforcement and political figures to start handling the situation better.”

But that effort is complicated because Holder, out of concern over the ability of the Ferguson and St. Louis Country police departments’ abilities to competently handle the situation, has moved aggressively to establish a federal presence.

“Typically, the Department of Justice has adopted a ‘backstop’ policy, where they’ll allow local justice to prosecute these crimes, and only if there’s some evidence that the local justice process has failed in some way, then the federal government steps in,” Whiting said. “Here, obviously because of the attention this case has received, Holder has decided to move forward right away.”

Still, Holder does bring unique advantages to the controversy — and ones that could help as the administration tries to calm long simmering racial tensions.

Last year, Holder announced his “Smart on Crime” program, which is designed to reduce racial disparities in the justice system by rolling back drug sentencing guidelines that have resulted in disproportionate minority incarceration. 

The attorney general has also been unafraid to discuss delicate issues of race, memorably arguing in 2009 that the U.S. is “in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards” unwilling to discuss hard questions. And Holder has made the Civil Rights Division a point of emphasis after accusations it was gutted during the Bush administration.