Amid the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation into last month’s police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a new federal initiative Thursday to study racial bias and build trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Holder cited growing divisions between police and local residents as a topic of national importance since the protests in Ferguson, sparked by the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer. He said he hoped the new program, supported by a $4.75 million grant in five pilot communities, will help defuse future confrontations.

“The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved,” Holder said.

“As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation and a unique opportunity to ensure fairness, eliminate bias and build community engagement,” he said.

Holder visited Ferguson, a small, predominantly black suburb north of St. Louis, soon after the shooting. In many of his community meetings there, he said, he was repeatedly told of black residents being harassed by white officers, unfairly targeted for tickets and court orders, and repeatedly slapped with large fines and other penalties.

On Aug. 9, Brown, 18, was killed by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, and the shooting prompted nights of protests and civil unrest. Tempers further flared when police responded to the unrest with military-style vehicles and riot gear.

Witnesses have said Brown raised his hands in an apparent attempt to surrender before he was shot at least six times. Others suggested Brown might have first tried to struggle with Wilson to try to seize the officer’s gun.

Holder has launched an FBI civil rights investigation into the shooting. Separately, local prosecutors have begun presenting evidence to a St. Louis County grand jury to determine whether Wilson should face state charges in the death.

Local authorities had hoped to wrap up their grand jury probe by October. But a judge this week gave the grand jury until Jan. 7 to decide whether to indict Wilson. The local prosecuting attorney’s office said the grand jury has begun considering evidence and likely will make a decision well before the January deadline.

Holder’s new program, called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, is a three-year effort that will start with five as-yet-unnamed cities to train police and community leaders.

In addition to police training, the program will help communities reduce police bias and ease perceptions of unequal treatment in the local court system, both of which surfaced as deep problems in Ferguson. A board of advisers will include national law enforcement officials and faith-based and community leaders.

The effort, Holder said, “represents a major step forward in resolving long-standing tensions in many of America’s communities.”

— McClatchy-Tribune