DOJ Report on Ferguson Faults Police Tactics

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Ferguson burning last fall
Ferguson burning last fall

A report being released by the US Department of Justice is casting blame on law enforcement officials, responding to demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown last August, for using inappropriate tactics and strategies that helped to inflame the situation and exacerbated tensions.

Instead of helping to quell unrest following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Wilson, the report finds that deploying dogs as a crowd control measure was “provocative.” They cited that the positioning of snipers on top of armored cars during daytime protests helped to “inflame tensions.”

They report that tear gas was “deployed inappropriately,” and that law enforcement used unconstitutional policing strategies, suppressing people’s First Amendment rights. These strategies “had the unintended consequence of escalating rather than diminishing tension,” the report concludes.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which undertook the project in early September, is releasing the report, which is around 200 pages long.

“Vague and arbitrary” orders to keep protesters moving “violated citizens’ right to assembly and free speech, as determined by a U.S. federal court injunction,” according to a summary of the report.

The police response, the report contends, was hampered by inconsistent leadership, a failure to understand the community, a reactive strategy for handling protests, poor communication, and complications caused by St. Louis County’s extraordinarily fractured network of small law enforcement agencies, which a nationally recognized police research organization has criticized as “dysfunctional and unsustainable.”

The report lays much of the blame on the leadership, arguing that the officers were under extreme stress and pressure resulting from working long hours as taunts, spit, rocks and bottles of urine were hurled in their direction. These resulted in bad judgment and engaging in uncharacteristic behavior. Officers on the front lines “faced unprecedented levels of abuse,” and minority officers in particular were targeted with “extreme verbal abuse.”

The report notes that law enforcement’s response to the unrest “seemed like a rudderless ship” to many officers because “direction for officers on arrests and engaging protesters seemed to change regularly.”

According to interviews with officers, the officers “consistently, and clearly, indicated there was confusion” regarding proper arrest procedures and guidelines, a situation that St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar acknowledged in federal court last fall.

Last year’s unrest was aggravated by long-standing community animosity toward Ferguson police, and by a failure of commanders to provide more details to the public after an officer killed Michael Brown.

“Had law enforcement released information on the officer-involved shooting in a timely manner and continued the information flow as it became available, community distrust and media skepticism would most likely have been lessened,” according to the document.

The report finds that law enforcement agencies who responded to the situation in Ferguson “encountered an event unprecedented in recent times” that “became a defining moment in policing history.”

A large number of demonstrators and the widespread use of social media made the event particularly challenging from the perspective of the police. The report argues that Ferguson should serve as “a vivid reminder that law enforcement agencies must continually analyze their policing practices in relation to the communities they serve.”

COPS Director Ron Davis wrote in the introduction that the Ferguson demonstrations became “part of a national movement to reform our criminal justice system and represent a new civil rights movement.”

“The failure to learn from our experiences — both our successes and setbacks — increases the likelihood of repeating mistakes and contributes to loss of public trust,” Mr. Davis wrote. “Law enforcement must be prepared to respond to this new movement and to do so in a manner different from that of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when law enforcement was often used to disrupt demonstrations, oppress free speech, and deny constitutional rights.”

Aggressive tactics by law enforcement in Ferguson became a rallying cry for many against the militarization of police. In this report, they largely agreed with the widespread critique of the militarized police presence.

For instance, they note that by positioning a sniper on top of an armored tactical vehicle, “law enforcement helped to further the sentiment that they were reacting in a militaristic manner,” the report says. Initial police responses “appeared to galvanize a negative perspective and aggravate community concerns about police and the justice system in general.”

Moreover, community members, many who were non-participants, “became angered at what they perceived to be a heavy-handed response by the police rather than the police being there to ‘serve and protect.'”

One community member related to the investigators that “riot gear, tear gas, five-second rule, tanks were all acts of aggression” that exacerbated the crowd’s response. “Back to Selma all over again,” they said.

“It was clear the armored vehicles stirred the emotions of demonstrators — they expressed fear, anger, and intimidation by the vehicles’ mere presence,” the report says. “Community members stated that the vehicles were ‘acts of aggression’ by the police.”

The sniper rifles was a key flashpoint for criticism. According to the report, this action represents “a particularly alarming behavior, especially if the rifle is pointed at the viewer.” Nor did law enforcement officials seem to appreciate the imagery of using dogs, which hearkened back to the days of Bull Connor in Alabama who used dogs and hoses to subdue protesters in that notorious incident that helped turn the tide in the Civil Rights Movement.

The report finds, “(Law enforcement) must be reasonable and flexible with their choice of tactics … consider the historical context of the community served, and focus not only on what may be authorized pursuant to policy but also on what is right… The assessment team concluded that the use of these military-like tactics, particularly the officers deployed with rifles, was not appropriate for the circumstances.”

“While I understand that, we have to keep our people safe. Sometimes policing is not pretty,” one police commander told investigators.

From the start, the report continues, police were at a disadvantage as the “relationship between law enforcement and the communities of color in St. Louis County were extremely strained.” Interestingly, there had been no riots in St. Louis County following the killing of Martin Luther King in 1968 or following the 1992 acquittal of Rodney King. Therefore, the community “did not have any prior history with a similar critical incident on which to base the turn of events that resulted after Mr. Brown’s death.”

Police were in a tough position, as well. The report notes that “the fractured nature of law enforcement in St. Louis County was also problematic.” For example, there was the successful strategy implemented under Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson.

However, in so doing, the time he spent on community engagement and doing media interviews caused him to be “less engaged in day-to-day, hour-to-hour incident command responsibilities and instead became the public face for the police response.”

Many officers believed that putting the highway patrol in charge “showed disrespect to them and their capabilities.”

Further, Captain Johnson’s decision to walk with the protesters along West Florissant Avenue “seemed to have a positive impact on community relations (but his) perceived support for the demonstrators lowered morale among officers, including Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 thoughts on “DOJ Report on Ferguson Faults Police Tactics”

  1. Anon

    I only got partway into this article and became disgusted, so stopped reading.  Geez!

    Look at this quote:

    Instead of helping to quell unrest following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Wilson, the report finds that deploying dogs as a crowd control measure was “provocative.” They cited that the positioning of snipers on top of armored cars during daytime protests helped to “inflame tensions.”

    They report that tear gas was “deployed inappropriately,” and that law enforcement used unconstitutional policing strategies, suppressing people’s First Amendment rights. These strategies “had the unintended consequence of escalating rather than diminishing tension,” the report concludes.

    juxtaposed against this quote:

    The report lays much of the blame on the leadership, arguing that the officers were under extreme stress and pressure resulting from working long hours as taunts, spit, rocks and bottles of urine were hurled in their direction. These resulted in bad judgment and engaging in uncharacteristic behavior. Officers on the front lines “faced unprecedented levels of abuse,” and minority officers in particular were targeted with “extreme verbal abuse.

    The DOJ went in there with a preconceived notion and got the results it was looking for – a BAD POLICE DEPT.  I read these two paragraphs and came to a different conclusion, which is that the police department was not prepared for a full scale riot, something it never expected to handle, especially if short-funded and short-staffed.  It was overwhelmed by an unexpected situation it was not equipped to deal with.   IMO the DOJ handled this report very poorly, and instead of coming up with constructive criticisms, which was justified, it has used all sorts of pejorative language, which is not particularly helpful and will tend to hinder positive change by engendering resentment.  The DOJ itself is hardly immune from criticism itself for some of its horrendous conduct, e.g. Fast and Furious scandal.

  2. TrueBlueDevil

    Not surprising that an Eric Holder led DOJ would write such a report. Holder is viewed by many, along with Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and money-man George Soros, as having taken us backwards in race relations and civility. So the George-Soros-funded rent-a-mobs want o burn, loot, and attack police officers, and their conclusion is to blame the police. I get it.

    But it gets more complicated. The DOJ report says that the police responded poorly on social media – a forum Soros’ henchmen excelled at – so I suggest that police departments across the land hire teenage mutant PR experts to combat the lies and distortions from the Left. This becomes quite difficult as the wheels of justice spin slowly, and it would take months to prove that the “Hands up, don’t Shoot” was based on The Big Lie, that Michael Brown was a big softie taking a break between yoga lessons.

    The St. Louis Metro Police Department actually has 8 staffers monitoring social media and countering the lies of anarchists, communists, and trolls residing in Mom’s basement. Unsure if they counter inflammatory statements by Holder, Sharpton, and Obama. I suggest a bonus of beer left over from the infamous Beer Summit at the White House.

    I am old-fashioned in that I fault thieves, arsonists, rioters, and felons first, I don’t look to see if the officers coddled lawbreakers. I’m sure the police made many less-than-perfect decisions. I’m also sure they have to deal with union restrictions, liberal lawyers, political hires, and various other pressure groups, as well as incompetent political leadership. I’m sure that included pesky calls from Holder, Valerie Jarrett, and Sharpton.

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        1. Davis was appointed by… drum roll… Eric Holder!

        2. 2 of his 3 co-authored reports are on race.

        3. Never heard of the COPS… they’ve spent over $14 Billion enacting their change.

        4. Ron Davis did help reduce crime in East Palo Alto. But he was also sued for discrimination and creating a hostile work environment for African American employees. Four police officer filed suit. They claimed that in 8 years he only hired 1 black police officer in a city with a large black community. The suit alleged that he was dismissive and worse to his black subordinates, and two African American women transferred out of his department because of his mistreatment.

        It sounds like the DOJ should investigate Mr. Davis.

        http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_24538309/four-black-east-palo-alto-cops-allege-that

         

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I think there’s a big so what here. Basically you’re attacking this report based on the individuals you think are involved rather than the content. Eric Holder did things I agree with and things I disagree with. I think we should judge this report based on the report itself rather than who you think was behind it and what you think their agenda might be.

        2. David Greenwald Post author

          “4. Ron Davis did help reduce crime in East Palo Alto. But he was also sued for discrimination and creating a hostile work environment for African American employees. Four police officer filed suit. They claimed that in 8 years he only hired 1 black police officer in a city with a large black community. The suit alleged that he was dismissive and worse to his black subordinates, and two African American women transferred out of his department because of his mistreatment.

          It sounds like the DOJ should investigate Mr. Davis.”

          This is basically mudslinging on your part. It’s not material to his report. It may be that he’s not a good administrator but a good investigator. You’re trying to throw mud rather than discuss the material issues raised in the report and frankly it’s not helpful to discussion or conversation. It could just as easily be argued, btw, that given his less than stellar purported record, that perhaps his findings are that much stronger rather than weaker.

        3. TrueBlueDevil

          Or it could be argued that he is trying to cover his alleged previous wrongdoings by carrying water for Obama and the Far Left. This is like asking the fox to guard the hen house, which no sane person would ever do. But maybe he gets a pass due to ‘political’ considerations.

          So you’re suggesting that if Mark Fuhrman investigates a case of systemic racism, we should take his report at face  value. Interesting proposition.

  3. Frankly

    The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

    This is like reading a report on frack drilling done by Greenpeace

    Not worth any more of my time except to say that violent riots demand military procedures if not the actual military.

  4. PhilColeman

    Exclude me, please, from any association with the political and personality discussions that largely comprise this post-column discussion. I’ll concentrate on two of the tactical issues cited in this report.

    You never, repeat never, use dogs in crowd control situations. Bull Conner taught everybody that, or so I thought.

    Placement of snipers of armored cars. Snipers are never, never, used as a tool of intimidation, which this apparent was the intent. There is no possible way a sniper on a moving vehicle could be used for the task trained for. Surely, nobody was reasoning that the snipers could shoot into the crowd if they saw something dangerous.

    You never position snipers in open view. If snipers are a legitimate deployment (and that seems to be improbable in itself), they are placed on high-ground when available, in a secure location, free from observation.

    Provocative is an appropriate adjective to describe both these actions.

  5. Frankly

    From the DOJ website for the COPS program:

    The COPS Office plays a critical role in executing the attorney general’s Smart on Crime Initiative by focusing on fairer enforcement, crime prevention, and the improvement of relationships with minority populations.

    From the Smart on Crime Initiative website, five goals:

    To ensure finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities;
    To promote fairer enforcement of the laws and alleviate disparate impacts of the criminal justice system
     To ensure just punishments for low-level, nonviolent convictions
     To bolster prevention and reentry efforts to deter crime and reduce recidivism
    To strengthen protections for vulnerable populations

    The mission of COPS and four of the five goals in the Smart on Crime initiative clearly outline an “affirmative action” crime and punishment agenda.

    I don’t know how much of this work had been done previously in the Ferguson PD; but it seems disingenuous and political to use this criteria to assess police work dealing with a violent riot.  It appears to me that this report is based on criteria that is not even in practice yet.  How would you like that in your professional life… to have your performance assessed by a new set of criteria that you have not even been told about yet, nor given any time to comply with?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Perhaps but what of the main points – the use of dogs, the placement of snipers, etc. that Phil raises? I have spent a lot of time talking to current and former police officers about these things, I have yet to find one that defends the tactics used at Ferguson as a crowd-control method. Landy Black and Darren Pytel at DPD would never has used these tactics at a protest.

      1. PhilColeman

        1. We beat up on Ferguson because it’s such an easy target. But were the Ferguson public policy makers were to speak, one suspects that comments in reply would include the following:

        The Ferguson Police force is below minimum staffing levels (fatigue and stress factor) and lead by a leadership that cannot or will not lead (the confusion factor cited by officers). Good police leadership comes from the ranks. The ranks are inferior quality, which leads to the same kind of leadership. This problem has been ignored and neglected for generations.

        2. Inadequate staffing and leadership is a product of inferior pay and benefits, virtually non-existent training, all because Ferguson has no money. The truism applies here: You get what you pay for. And I’ll repeat my mantra: “Every community gets exactly the policing they deserve.”

        3. Fix those things, and the sanctimonious federal observers and presumed experts can be gracefully escorted out of town.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          How do current affirmative action policies come into play? My guess is that it varies by city and state.

          Years ago I spoke with a police officer who claimed that they used to hire the top 5 candidates, or the top 20 candidates, for open positions. But that did not deliver the ethnic makeup required by the politicians and sometimes legal decrees. Some then argued that there was no difference between a candidate who scored a 100 on a test, versus someone who scored an 80. Thus came the solution of “banding” in at least one city, where they then lumped everyone together who scored an 80 or higher on the test, and they then relied on other criteria like physical fitness tests, marksmanship scores, hardship, etc.

          Mr. Coleman probably can comment on this much more extensively, but the police officer I spoke with was livid as he felt highly qualified candidates were passed over for less qualified candidates. He also claimed other ‘adjustments’ were made to fulfill consent decree / political needs.

          These same recruiting / testing strategies may have also been used for filling positions above entry-level rank.

           

        2. Miwok

          The ranks are inferior quality, which leads to the same kind of leadership

          With all the articles on the law enforcement and Justice system in Yolo County, is that the situation here, and how can we apply the “lessons” the Vanguard is trying to impart? Do we here have bad leadership and inferior officers and attorneys? Why?

          Ferguson is similar to many communities across the nation, who start with a traffic cop, and through ticket revenue all of a sudden have a Police department? Then you expect the traffic cop to be a Law Enforcement Professional? Did Ferguson send a bunch of Parking enforcement officers to a riot? And does Yolo County do the same thing?

  6. zaqzaq

    ‘the officers were under extreme stress and pressure resulting from working long hours as taunts, spit, rocks and bottles of urine were hurled in their direction. ”

    Why wasn’t Brown’s step father, the felon, charged with inciting a riot when he yelled burn the place down when the grand jury’s decision was announced?  Why not blame the rioters for the riot, not the police.  Wasn’t an officer shot in the head by a rioter in Ferguson?  The media seems to take the position that it is ok to spit, throw rocks and bottles of urine at cops when you are unhappy.  How many people have been prosecuted for the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore?  It would be nice to see some results with real long prison sentences for this behavior.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      In part because it was an audit of how the police could have handled things better and you see what Phil Coleman pointed out from his lengthy experience as a police officer.

      1. zaqzaq

        Hopefully they are doing one on Baltimore and how the police at the instructions of the mayor failed to protect the private property and businesses in that city.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      zaqzaq, because of the local and national politics. There is a cost / benefit analysis as well. If his stepfather is black (I believe he is), that it makes it significantly harder to charge him due to the racial hysteria whipped up by the Left, anarchists, rent-a-mob, Soros, Holder, and Obama. Who knows, maybe they are doing a thorough investigation and will bring charges against some, but my bet would be no, as that might simply help provoke another round of riots, protests, and claims.

      You are correct, it does appear like most of the media side with the lawbreakers, even in a very subtle way. Side stories that allude to economic isolation racism, previous riots 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, serve as justification for actions.

      You won’t hear from these largely liberal “journalists” about historically high truancy rates, dropout rates, violence within the community or home, and out-of-wedlock births.

      Megyn Kelly on Fox News last night had a discussion on the #BlackLivesMatter issue.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXcLiVPxQRU

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        More from the same one hour show last night.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LgsGng3Oh4

        An African American woman (red glasses) notes that the #BlackLivesMatter protesters on the front lines were shouting at the police officers, “We know where you live, we are going to rape your wives and rape your children.” She claimed many of the front-line protesters were shouting these threats, not 1 or 2. (She is the daughter of a police officer.)

        Humm, the media hasn’t reported those threats!

        1. Miwok

          As a long time employee of UCD, I was schooled early in my career there that only Blacks and minorities can speak to the other Blacks and Minorities about this problem. White people are not allowed to be offended or demand fairness, because if someone shouts epithets at you, that is okay for them to so that, but you are not allowed to make any comments about it if you are not Black/Minority, let alone join in and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with calling each other names and such.

          So what do they have on these shows? White people analyzing the news.. Wrong.

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