Federal officials have agreed to launch a civil rights investigation into Sunday's fatal police shooting in Minneapolis. But former federal officials are cautioning that the process can be a long process and can leave community members with dashed expectations.
Protesters took to the streets Sunday and Monday to demand a federal inquiry into the shooting of Jamar Clark in north Minneapolis. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges made the request to the United States Justice Department saying federal review would promote "transparency and community trust."
But while federal civil rights investigations are appealing to local leaders because they often seem more independent than a local law enforcement investigation, they can also lead to unrealistic expectations that charges will be filed, said Robert Driscoll, who served in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush.
The civil rights division has a special unit looking at criminal cases involving the use of force by law enforcement officers. Officials with that unit will likely be gathering information about the case even as the state investigation proceeds.
Still, it's rare for federal civil rights charges against an officer to stick because the officer needs to be found to have intentionally violated someone's civil rights, Driscoll added.
"There are lots of things that an officer can do that might not be what we'd call a 'good shoot,'" Driscoll said. "But that does not make it a federal civil rights violation, because if the officer acted negligently or made a mistake or acted contrary to rules, that is not enough."
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is conducting the criminal investigation of Clark's death. Most officer-involved shootings that lead to death or serious injury will also be investigated by a federal agency regardless of any local request, Driscoll said.
Federal officers often wait to see how the state probe unfolds before making their inquiries. Many of those federal investigations aren't publicized, he added.
It's often easier for federal officials to conduct an investigation into incidents like this without publicity, said Thomas Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota.
"The goal is to be able to gather as many facts as possible as quickly and as reliably as possible," Heffelfinger said. "It allows the FBI and the U.S. attorney to move quickly and quietly to make a decision, either to commence a formal investigation or not."
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