ATLANTA, Ga. — In the wake of clashes at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says new Justice Department guidance will aim to end racial profiling and ensure fair and effective policing.
Holder said in a speech Monday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor) that he will unveil details of the plan in the coming days.
Civil Rights organizations have urged the Justice Department to clarify federal profiling guidelines to eliminate loopholes created by post-9/11 national security provisions. The Justice Department is working to finalize scheduling details, but the announcement will likely happen on Wednesday or Friday, officials said.
“In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement, which will institute rigorous new standards and robust safeguards to help end racial profiling, once and for all,” said Holder during his speech. “This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing.”
President Obama instructed Holder to hold regional meetings on building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve after the conflicts in Ferguson. Monday’s meeting in Atlanta was the first.
Earlier Monday, Obama asked federal agencies on Monday for concrete recommendations to ensure the U.S. isn’t building a “militarized culture” within police departments, as he promoted the use of body cameras by police in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri
The White House also announced it wants more police to wear cameras that capture their interactions with civilians. The cameras are part of a $263 million spending package to help police departments improve their community relations.
The president held a meeting with elected officials, community and faith leaders, law enforcement officials and several other members of his administration. He announced he would be signing an executive order to standardize the way the federal government distributes military-style equipment to police forces.
The selection of King’s church as the site for the meeting was significant. The most successful and enduring movements for change adhere to the principles of non-aggression and nonviolence that King preached, Holder said.
“As this congregation knows better than most, peaceful protest has long been a hallmark, and a legacy, of past struggles for progress,” he said. “This is what Dr. King taught us, half a century ago, in his eloquent words from the Ebenezer pulpit and in the vision he shared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Tensions between police and the community in Ferguson boiled over after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in August. Protests turned violent again last week, after a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death.
While the grand jury has made its decision, the Justice Department continues its investigation into the death of Brown and into allegations of unconstitutional policing patterns or practices by the Ferguson Police Department, Holder said to loud applause.
Holder also told the crowd that the meetings he’s convening around the country are just the beginning and that he wants to start a frank dialogue and then translate that into concrete action and results. Holder’s comments were well received by the audience.
When a group of people interrupted his speech with chants and was escorted out, Holder applauded their “genuine expression of concern and involvement” and got a standing ovation from the crowd. Several dozen protesters chanted and waved signs referencing Ferguson outside the doors of church.
Holder, who plans to leave the position once a successor is confirmed, has identified civil rights as a cornerstone priority for the Justice Department and speaks frequently about what he calls inequities in the treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system. He has targeted sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that he says are overly harsh and disproportionately affect Black defendants and has promoted alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.
Last year, as part of the Justice Department’s ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative, he instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences – punishments that he said were contributing to overcrowded prisons.
The Justice Department has also broadened the criteria for inmates seeking clemency in hopes of encouraging potentially thousands more inmates to apply, and Holder backed changes in federal sentencing guideline ranges that could result in tens of thousands of drug prisoners becoming eligible for early release. Holder also has publicly discussed the need to ease tensions between police departments and minority communities.
The Justice Department has also targeted flawed police departments, initiating roughly 20 investigations of local police agencies (including Ferguson) in the past five years. A new pilot program announced weeks after the Ferguson shooting would study racial bias in American cities and recommend ways to reduce the problem.
He has spoken about race in sometimes personal terms, recalling after the Ferguson shooting instances in which as a younger man he was stopped or confronted by police without cause. He has also said he understands mistrust of law enforcement in minority communities.