By Chuck Raasch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
WASHINGTON — With a grand jury decision on the Ferguson shooting death of Michael Brown expected soon, the Justice Department today has released new guidelines to help “maintain public safety while safeguarding constitutional rights” of demonstrators who are preparing to gather in cities around the country after the decision is announced.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the new guidelines in a video posted this morning on the Justice Department’s Web site. In it, Holder also exhorts protesters and police to keep the peace — to “minimize needless confrontation” — an extraordinary plea for calm before a local judiciary event from the nation’s attorney general.
Brown was shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, and a St. Louis County grand jury has been reviewing evidence toward a decision on whether or not to indict Wilson on criminal charges.
The new guidelines are being distributed to law enforcement associations, U.S. attorneys offices, and local law-enforcement email lists.
“It is vital to engage in planning and preparation, from evaluating protocols and training to choosing the appropriate equipment and uniforms,” Holder says to law enforcement officials in the video. “This is the hard work that is necessary to preserve the peace and maintain the public trust at all times — particularly in moments of heightened community tension.”
Holder goes on:
“Over the past few months, we’ve seen demonstrations and protests that have sought to bring attention to real and significant underlying issues involving police practices, implicit bias, and pervasive community distrust. And in most cases, these demonstrations have been both meaningful and responsible, and have brought vital issues to the attention of the public at large. Similarly, the vast majority of law enforcement officers have honorably defended their fellow citizens engaged in these peaceful protests.
“I know, from first-hand experience, that demonstrations like these have the potential to spark a sustained and positive national dialogue, to provide momentum to a necessary conversation, and to bring about critical reform.
“But history has also shown us that the most successful and enduring movements for change are those that adhere to non-aggression and nonviolence. And so I ask all those who seek to lend their voice to important causes and discussions, and who seek to elevate these vital conversations, to do so in a way that respects the gravity of their subject matter.”
Allegations that police in St. Louis County and Ferguson overreacted to demonstrators, looters and others after the Aug. 9 shooting prompted congressional hearings on whether police around the country were becoming “militarized.” President Barack Obama has ordered a review of a Department of Defense program that sends surplus military equipment to local police.
Holder’s Bureau of Justice Assistance issued the “Resource Guide for Enhancing Community Relationships and Protecting Privacy and Constitutional Rights.” It pulls together brochures, guides and other instruction material on topics like “The Role of State and Local Law Enforcement at First Amendment Events.”
Post-grand jury decision gatherings are planned for at least 100 cities around the country, according to a Web clearinghouse called the Ferguson National Response Network. According to the site, gatherings are being planned in cities from Tampa, Fla., to Batesville, Ark., to Seattle. The site includes postings on planned demonstrations in Columbia, Mo., and Carbondale, Ill.
AFP Photo/Alex Wong