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