What's next for Ferguson?

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FERGUSON, Mo. — Street clashes have finally subsided after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, but it remains uncertain how long the tenuous peace will last.  

West Florissant Avenue, the commercial strip near where Michael Brown died two weeks ago, has drawn smaller crowds of marchers ahead of his funeral on Monday, which Rev. Al Sharpton and Reps. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will attend.

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Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who has overseen police operations in Ferguson since Aug. 14, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he hoped the protests had “turned a corner.”

 

Grand jury indictment

Protesters are demanding the indictment and prosecution of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown six times on Aug. 9. 

The street clashes calmed after St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch presented evidence to a grand jury Wednesday. African-American residents of the area took it as a sign that the wheels of justice had started turning. 

But McCulloch has warned the grand jury may not return its finding until the middle of October, after it has reviewed all of the evidence.

Clay, who represents Ferguson in Washington, told The Hill he has little confidence McCulloch will press for Wilson’s conviction, and many of his constituents share his skepticism. 

“I have no faith in the local prosecution. The local prosecutor and his office have a track record of not pursuing these police units and not protecting the victims or their families,” he said. “He has a zero conviction rate in police [cases.]”

 

The Justice Department’s investigation

Clay wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to conduct an expansive federal investigation of Brown’s death.

Holder will leave the investigation into Brown’s death to the county prosecutor and his team of experienced prosecutors, and agents will focus instead on possible civil rights violations.

Specifically, the Justice Department will look at the enforcement priorities and arrest patterns of the police department in Ferguson.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he expects Justice to enter into an agreement with Ferguson to reform its policing practices, and predicted similar agreements could be made with other communities in the area.

“The Justice Department could find there are repeated violations,” he said.

He said Holder could then file a suit against communities that show patterns of harassment, and noted local governments often prefer to adopt reforms instead of fighting in court. 

Justice Department officials have not said how long their investigation will play out, but it could last for months.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has urged for the federal and local probes to conclude at approximately the same time.

"Obviously all of us are concerned not just about that this process be fair, but what does this next six months look like?" she told The Associated Press.

 

Police tactics 

The aggressive tactics of the St. Louis County police used against protesters over the last two weeks have sparked criticism from around the country.

Look for county officials to lower the temperature of interactions between police officers and protesters.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has ordered the systematic withdrawal of National Guard troops who were used primarily to secure the police command center near the site of nightly protests.

Johnson, who has headed the police response, has put a new emphasis on efforts to build trust with the community. He recently visited the public library where kids were taking classes while schools remained closed.

Riot police have kept a lower profile in recent days and Johnson has emphasized that officers have stopped using tear gas, rubber bullets or mace. 

 

The militarization of state and local police departments

Expect President Obama to order a review of the transfer of military hardware from the Defense Department to state and local police forces.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have blamed the Pentagon’s 1033 program for what they see as the growing militarization of law enforcement.

The number of towns with heavily armed tactical teams has swelled in recent years and critics say many of them do not have proper training to deploy combat-grade weapons and equipment.

Clay and Cleaver met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week to urge him to use his executive authority to curb transfers to small police departments, which are less likely to confront terrorist cells or drug cartels.

Even so, the transfer of weapons to police forces remains popular in Congress, so legislation to end 1033 has a slim chance of passing. Earlier this year, the House voted down a proposal to limit military transfers by a margin of 355 to 62.

 

Increased scrutiny

The angry street protests in Ferguson have raised the profile of police brutality, and police homicides around the country are starting to gain more attention.

A crowd of thousands gathered in Staten Island, N.Y., on Saturday to protest the treatment of an unarmed African-American man who died after a white police officer put him in a chokehold.  

The recent fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by the Los Angeles police has also attracted attention. That death sparked street protests but the local police have tried to defuse racial tensions with a low-profile response to civil unrest, in contrast to the heavily militarized response in Ferguson that drew strong rebukes.