Eric Holder heads to Ferguson with a clear message

When Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement on Monday regarding the developments in Ferguson, Missouri, he gave a clear signal of how seriously he is taking the matter.

The attorney general did not say that President Obama is dispatching him to Ferguson on Wednesday. Instead, Holder said that when he met with Mr. Obama on Monday, "I informed him of my plan to personally travel to Ferguson Wednesday."

While in Ferguson, Holder plans on meeting with FBI officials who are investigating the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, as well as prosecutors on the ground from the Justice Department's Civil Rights division and officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"The full resources of the Department of Justice are being committed to our federal civil rights investigation into the death of Michael Brown," Holder said in his statement, noting that more than 40 FBI agents have been canvassing the neighborhood where Brown was shot.

The unusual investment of time and resources in Ferguson shows Holder's personal commitment to the case, according to legal experts.

"It is an extraordinary level of personal involvement by an attorney general," Thomas Dupree, who served as deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, told CBS News. Additionally, Dupree called the ongoing investigative efforts "an extraordinary commitment of resources."

"The fact that the attorney general is personally traveling to Missouri sends a message that this investigation is a top priority of the administration, it's a top priority for the attorney general personally," he said.

Holder's efforts so far are encouraging to those looking for reforms to the systemic problems that led to Brown's shooting on Aug. 9 and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, such as racial inequities in the criminal justice system and mistrust between local police forces and the communities they protect. Still, they're looking for a commitment to reform from the Justice Department that will last long after the dust settles in Ferguson.

"It's tremendously important the attorney general is going to Ferguson," Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told CBS News. Holder can provide moral leadership on the ground that Gupta called "vitally important." However, she added that "this is not a situation where moral leadership alone is going to be satisfactory."

"There are very direct ways in which the Department of Justice can engage in reforms of specific policies and practices, and funding streams, to ensure another Ferguson doesn't take place."

In the immediate aftermath of the ugly confrontations between protesters and police forces decked out in combat gear, the Justice Department has sent experts from the Justice Department's Community Relations Service to Ferguson. Additionally, Ronald Davis, the director of the Justice Department's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS), is also traveling to Ferguson Wednesday.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP branch, told CBS News that these Justice Department agencies are already working with local police forces and groups like his. They're playing a constructive role, he said, by giving community leaders "training and instructions on how the community can play a role to abate the overall [tense] atmosphere, and at the same time, amend the broken trust between the community and police department."

Pruitt said that in the longer term, the Justice Department can facilitate research into the sort of policing currently conducted in the St. Louis region, so that future unnecessary shootings are prevented.

"We have to do some significant research and analysis on the type of policing, the number of stops, things of that nature, not only going on in Ferguson but the entire region," he said. "In reality, Ferguson is one of 200-plus municipalities that exists within St. Louis county. They all are neighbors... While Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, the next killing could be two blocks over in Riverview Gardens."

Just hours after Pruitt spoke with CBS News, an knife-wielding African-American man was shot and killed by police in north St. Louis.

While the Justice Department works with local police forces, Pruitt said community leaders are also expecting the federal agency to be thorough in its civil rights investigation into the Brown shooting.

"If the Justice Department finds there was a... case for charges,it would go for a long way to abating the temperament of those in the community," he said. It would show, he said, that "when police do make a mistake, there is an ability for them to be prosecuted for doing so. Right now, among the folks out there, the sentiment in the community is that this doesn't exist."

The federal government has multiple options at its disposal, in terms of the role it can play in the investigation, and ultimately in terms of whether it will file criminal or civil charges in the case, Dupree said. In a case like this, the decision to file charges would be made "at a very high level," he said, and is often dependent on the status of state or local investigations.

The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation after the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, but it never filed charges against the shooter, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder by state prosecutors, but he was found not guilty in that case.

Dupree said the administration likely "drew a lesson" from that experience.

"The administration was heavily criticized -- in many cases from people who are typically their allies -- for not being more proactive in the Trayvon Martin case and not making that more of a civil rights case from the get-go," he said. By contrast, after the Michael Brown shooting, "from virtually the moment it happened, there was a very high level of real involvement and repeated statements by the president himself."

Gupta of the ACLU said that "there is a concern about the back-up of some of these investigations."

"People need to see activity and forward steps on these investigations in order to have faith in the value of independent federal investigations," she added.

While the Justice Department pursues its investigations, groups like the ACLU are waiting for the agency to take broader steps to reform the justice system. For one thing, the department should update its guidance on the use of race by law enforcement officials, including state and local law enforcement who work in partnership with the federal government, Gupta said. The Justice Department could also take steps such as requiring racial bias training and guidance for forces that receive federal grants, Gupta said.

The ACLU and other groups are also calling on the Justice Department to apply stricter rules -- or at least some oversight -- to local police forces that are given military equipment for free.

If Holder truly wants to make a difference, Gupta said, it will become more evident "once the cameras are no longer in Ferguson."

In an op-ed published Wednesday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holder pledged, "Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community."

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