Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in suburban St. Louis and the tense protests, riots and national discussion that it sparked has left the country at a "moment of decision" about how police interact with racial minorities.

"These tensions simmer every day in far too many communities across the country," Holder said. "The situation in Ferguson has presented leaders across the nation . . . with a moment of decision, a moment of decision, a series of important questions that can no longer be avoided."

The remarks came during a speech delivered at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice — in which the attorney general touted new numbers showing a year-over-year decline in the number of federal prisoners for the first time in decades.

Holder, who has frequently been the most outspoken member of the Obama administration when it comes to matters of race issues in America, used one section of his speech to address the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters have for weeks clashed with police officers after the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown.

There was some concern Tuesday that tensions in Ferguson would intensify after one of the makeshift street memorials for Brown was destroyed in an early-morning fire.

The source of the fire was unknown, but Tom Jackson, the chief of Ferguson's police department, said in a statement they were investigating.

Holder, in his speech, said the United States must decide if it will allow this period of time to be defined by racial division and discord, or if the country is prepared to "reassess" and potentially "remake" the way law enforcement relates and interacts with citizens.

"Will we yet again turn a blind eye to the hard truths that Ferguson exposed? Or will we finally accept this mandate for open and honest dialogue?" he said.

After heaping praise on the role and sacrifice of members of law enforcement, Holder explained why he understands the deep distrust that many racial minorities have for generations held toward police officers.

"As an African American man who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such actions were not warranted, I also carry with me an understanding of the mistrust that some citizens harbor" toward police, Holder said.

Protesters in St. Louis and nationwide have called for the arrest of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who has said he was attacked by Brown before shooting the 18-year-old multiple times. Several witnesses have told media outlets that Brown had his hands up or was trying to surrender when he was shot.

A grand jury is meeting to consider whether to indict Wilson, who has not been seen publicly since the shooting. Meanwhile, the shooting has reignited the national dialogue about the perception of racial inequity in police treatment.

A new poll released this week found that just 38 percent of Americans say that black people receive equal treatment under the criminal-justice system.

Recommended for you