WASHINGTON - Broadening its push to improve police relations with minorities, the Justice Department has enlisted a team of criminal justice researchers to study racial bias in law enforcement in five American cities and recommend strategies to address the problem nationally, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
The police shooting last month of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri underscored the need for the long-planned initiative, Holder said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said the three-year project, which will involve training, data analysis and interviews with community residents, could be a "silver lining" if it helps ease racial tensions and "pockets of distrust that show up between law enforcement and the communities that they serve."
"What I saw in Ferguson confirmed for me that the need for such an effort was pretty clear," Holder said.
The five cities have not yet been selected, but the researchers expect that the cities will offer training to officers and command staff on issues of racial bias.
The Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson spotlighted longstanding concerns about diversity in policing. The Ferguson police force is overwhelmingly white even though the suburban St. Louis city is roughly 70 percent black. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general's office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as often as white motorists, but were less likely to find contraband among the black drivers.
Holder, who visited Ferguson last month to meet with Brown's parents and with investigators, said he was struck by the number of complaints he heard about traffic stops and the concerns from minorities about being treated unfairly during encounters with the police.
"The reality is that it certainly had a negative impact on people's view of the effectiveness and fairness of the police department," Holder said.
The Justice Department in April announced that it was soliciting bids for a racial bias project that would collect data on stops, searches and arrests. On Thursday, the department will announce that it will provide $4.75 million in grants to a team of researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Yale University, UCLA and the Urban Institute.
In their writings, the researchers - who have been invited to cities including Chicago and New Haven to address violence there - have stressed the importance of a forum for minority communities to air grievances about law enforcement. Their work seeks to identify and curb hidden racial biases that can inform a police officer's decision about whom to consider a likely suspect and when to fire a weapon.
"Studies show that if people think that they are treated fairly by the police, that matters almost more than what the result is," Holder said. "If you get stopped for a traffic stop and feel that you are treated courteously and fairly, you are much more likely to accept the fact that you got a speeding ticket."
Both the FBI and local authorities are investigating the shooting for potential criminal charges, and the Justice Department is running a separate civil rights probe into the practices of the entire Ferguson police force. Holder said the FBI-led investigation into the shooting was moving along with good cooperation from the community.