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Justice Department to probe Ferguson Police Department

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Aug. 12, 2014: Protesters line the street as police stand watch in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Department of Justice is launching a civil rights investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police department after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by one of its white officers. 

"The Department of Justice is working across the nation to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, constitutional and free of bias," Holder said. "The interventions in Missouri are an important part of that commitment. 

A government official briefed on the planned investigation told Fox News that the Justice Department's civil rights division would be in charge of the probe. The inquiry is referred to as a "pattern and practice" investigation and will focus on the department's policies, not possible individual wrongdoing. 

The Justice Department is conducting a separate, narrower investigation into the August 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury is also considering whether to indict Wilson for the shooting, which which set off about two weeks of unrest in the streets of Ferguson and became a flashpoint in the national discussion of police treatment of minorities across the country. Two weeks ago, Holder visited the St. Louis suburb, where he met with investigators and Brown's parents and shared personal experiences of having himself been mistreated by the police.

The new investigation was first reported by The Washington Post. The Associated Press reported that Missouri officials were notified of the new investigation Wednesday. 

Police have said the shooting followed a scuffle that broke out after Wilson told Brown and a friend to move out of the street and onto a sidewalk. Police say Wilson was pushed into his squad car and physically assaulted. Some witnesses have reported seeing Brown's arms up in the air before the shooting in an act of surrender. An autopsy paid for by Brown's family concluded that he was shot six times, twice in the head.

Some in Ferguson have said police disproportionately target black motorists during traffic stops. A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general's office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as frequently as white motorists but were also less likely to find contraband among the black drivers. The police force in Ferguson is predominately white, while approximately 70 percent of the town's population of 21,000 is black. 

The Justice Department's civil rights division routinely investigates individual police departments when there are allegations of systemic use-of-force violations, racial bias or other problems. The department says it's opened more than twice as many investigations into police department in the past five years as were opened in the previous five years. Among those that have recently come under investigation is the Albuquerque, New Mexico, department, which was the subject of a harshly critical report in April that faulted the police for a pattern of excessive force and called an overhaul of its internal affairs unit.

Normally, the federal investigation encourages significant changes to policies and practices. The investigations sometimes end in an agreement known as a consent decree, which lays out changes that the department must make.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.