Attorney General Eric Holder shakes hands with Bradley J. Rayford, 22 following his meeting at St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.
Attorney General Eric Holder shakes hands with Bradley J. Rayford, 22 following his meeting at St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. met with community groups and law enforcement Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo., urging cooperation to reduce tension after days of clashes between police and protesters.

Holder arrived Wednesday morning for a briefing on the investigation of the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Police, earlier, had arrested dozens of people amid the demonstrations over the shooting of he unarmed teenager. Unlike other nights, however, police on Wednesday did not fire tear gas, according to press reports.

Holder’s trip furthers the involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has aggressively fought police misconduct during his tenure. Holder said Wednesday “very experienced” prosecutors were investigating the shooting. “We’re looking for possible violations of civil rights statutes,” Holder said. He pledged a “thorough and fair” inquiry into the shooting.

Holder said the turmoil in Ferguson is personal to him, and that the resolution of the Brown investigation will be a part of the legacy of the Justice Department and its Civil Rights Division. Holder said he understood the mistrust of students that he met with Wednesday at St. Louis Community College. Police, he said, twice pulled him over on the New Jersey Turnpike and once stopped him as he ran through Georgetown to catch a movie.

“I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man,” Holder said, according to excerpts of his remarks provided by the Justice Department. “I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over. … ‘Let me search your car.’ … Go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff. I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”

On the Georgetown incident, Holder said he negotiated with the police. “At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself,” Holder said.

Holder said that community dialogue is not enough. “We need concrete action to change things in this country. That’s what I have been trying to do. That’s what the president has been trying to do,” Holder said.

“We have a very active Civil Rights Division. I am proud of what these men and women have done. As they write about the legacy of the Obama administration, a lot of it is going to be about what the Civil Rights Division has done.”

And he called on the Ferguson community leaders to start the work now. “The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States. This country is capable of change. But change doesn’t happen by itself,” Holder said.

One student told Holder that her brother died in an encounter with Ferguson police in 2011, according to pool reports. Molyric Welch said after the meeting that Jason Moore, 31, died of cardiac arrest after officers allegedly used a stun gun during a disturbance call. (Moore’s relatives on Tuesday filed suit against the Ferguson Police Department.)

“A lot has happened here,” she said. “[Holder] promised things were going to change.”

Holder later stopped at Drake’s Place Restaurant, where he told one politician that “we can make it better.”

The attorney general also met Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who took command of the law enforcement operations last week and has played a key role in trying to bring calm to the community. Holder shook Johnson’s hand and hugged him as camera shutters fired inside the restaurant.

“You are the man,” Holder told him. Johnson replied: “We’re just trying to make it by.”

Asked whether he had confidence in the local investigation led by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Johnson said: “General Holder, by being here, is a guarantee on that.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com. On Twitter: @ToddRuger.