New Ferguson report offers lessons on handling protests
Police walking down West Florissant after a violent Sunday night in Ferguson
By ERIC TUCKER / Associated Press & KMOV.com staff
WASHINGTON (AP) - The police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer offers lessons in how not to handle mass demonstrations, according to a Justice Department report that warns such problems could happen in other places roiled by mistrust between law enforcement and the community.
The report fleshes out a draft version made public in June, creating a portrait of poor community-police relations, ineffective communication among the more than 50 law enforcement agencies that responded, police orders that infringed on First Amendment rights, and military-style tactics that antagonized demonstrators.
The final version, which is to be released on Thursday, was obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
The report focuses on the regional police response in the 17 days that followed the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer. In a detailed chronology, it tracks missteps that began almost immediately after the shooting when police wrongly assumed that crowds would quickly dissipate and failed to grasp community angst over the hours-long presence of Brown's body beneath white sheets in the street.
It details more flaws over the next two weeks, including the improper use of police dogs, armored vehicles and snipers to monitor crowds; the decision by some officers to remove their nameplates; arbitrary orders to demonstrators to keep moving after five seconds; and poor communication among agencies that led to confusion about which policy to follow and who was in charge. Even as rumors spread, police failed to use social media to distribute correct information that could have eased concerns, according to the report.
Several law enforcement agencies whose actions were studied said they've learned from the events.
Police officers interviewed for the review complained of inconsistent orders from commanders, with some saying "there was no plan in place for arresting people" or that they "were unclear who they could arrest." Community members, meanwhile, described poor relationships with the police that predated - and were made worse by - the shooting.
"Having effective relations and communications with the community, recognizing that endemic problems were at the base of the demonstrations, and understanding how the character of the mass gatherings was evolving and spreading beyond the initial officer-involved shooting would have all aided in incident management decisions," the report states.
It also makes clear that the factors that created the unrest in Ferguson are not unique to the city, particularly in a year of heightened tensions between police and minority communities nationwide.
The Justice Department cautioned that while the public sees the St. Louis suburb "as a community of division and violence," the protests and unrest that occurred there could happen in other places "in which fostering positive police-community relationships and building trust are not a priority." Federal officials hope the report will be instructive to other police departments confronting mass demonstrations.
"In many ways, the demonstrations that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown were more than a moment of discord in one small community; they have become part of a national movement to reform our criminal justice system and represent a new civil rights movement," Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services office, wrote in an introduction.
The Ferguson shooting, along with other deaths of blacks at the hands of white police officers, sparked a national dialogue about police-community relations and the role of race in policing. Several recent fatal shootings of officers - including in Illinois and Texas - have focused attention on violent crime and officer safety.
"We have seen violence strike at all segments of our community," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a housing conference Wednesday. "It is a sad fact now that no one is safe."
The Justice Department announced a review of the regional police response in September 2014 following a request from the St. Louis County police chief. The review is separate from a Justice Department report in March that criticized Ferguson police practices and the city's profit-driven municipal court system. A grand jury and the Justice Department both declined to prosecute Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Brown and later resigned.
The report focuses in particular on the responses of police in Ferguson, St. Louis city and county and the Missouri Highway Patrol.
A representative of the city of Ferguson said Wednesday that officials had not yet seen the report. The Missouri Highway Patrol said it's implemented "lessons learned from its own review."
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis city police department, Schron Jackson, said the agency had made multiple changes since last summer, including hiring more minority officers and launching a community engagement division.
"What our officers encountered during those first 17 days of unrest has forever changed policing," Jackson said. "We acknowledge such change by the progressive steps our department has taken to build better community relationships."
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said demonstrations like the ones that occurred in Ferguson are "unwieldy and difficult to manage by any precise measure" and that law enforcement could learn from "our successes and lessons learned."
But he said the report provided only a limited snapshot, ignoring more recent police responses seen as improvements, such as during the one-year anniversary of Brown's shooting.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol issued the following statement after regarding the report:
As has been seen in communities across the country, balancing how law enforcement protects the exercise of free speech and assembly while also preventing property destruction and violence are crucial issues that are not unique to any one community.
The many adaptations made by law enforcement in Ferguson during the 17-day incident period, including their work to engage residents and respond to community concerns, were important factors in preventing the loss of life or serious injuries.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol is particularly indebted to the hundreds of individual Patrol members from across the state who willingly and tirelessly responded to the Ferguson area despite the threats and stress that came with their dedicated service there. These men and women, along with their families, are to be commended for their resilience and many sacrifices.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol has already implemented lessons learned from its own review of events in Ferguson, which has included listening to the concerns of members of the public. The Patrol is committed to continuing the process of strengthening trust and improving law enforcement – community relations.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department issued the following statement following report's release:
Following the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the Metropolitan Police Department, City of St. Louis met many times with the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to discuss our department's response to the crisis. We welcomed the conversation, and were prepared to have open dialogue about what we did well and which areas we needed to improve upon.
What our officers encountered during those first 17-days of unrest has forever changed policing. We acknowledge such change by the progressive steps our department has taken to build better community relationships. We recently launched the Community Engagement and Organizational Development Division (CEODD). The CEODD was formed to meet the needs of policing in the 21st century and to ensure equal and respectful treatment while providing the highest quality of police service to citizens. The department recently started the internationally recognized program, Coffee With A Cop, which has been well-received by the community. Once a month, officers and citizens meet to converse about issues and concerns in their neighborhoods while having a cup of coffee. Along with implementing community outreach programs, the CEODD focuses on organizational development and internal training. Training programs focused on ethics, de-escalation tactics and implicit biases provide officers with the tools necessary to better serve and communicate with citizens. Our department is committed to having a police force that reflects the diversity of our city. We have increased our efforts to build a more diverse applicant pool, by visiting colleges and universities, attending community events and participating in job fairs. As a result of our ongoing recruitment efforts, our last several classes have been comprised of a diverse group of recruits to include Caucasian, African American, Native American, Bosnian, Hispanic and Asian.
The Metropolitan Police Department, City of St. Louis has been protecting and serving citizens in this community since 1808. The Department's mission is rooted in our core values of Service, Integrity, Leadership and Fair Treatment to All. As the second largest law enforcement agency in the state of Missouri our policies and procedures are modeled after best practices in policing. We are committed to continually working to build and strengthen community relationships.
The City of Ferguson also released a statement:
The City of Ferguson is currently reviewing the 185 page report released today by the Department of Justice. Although the report examines police practices that occurred during the 17 days of unrest within the City of Ferguson in August 2014, it’s important to note that the Ferguson Police Department received assistance from several law enforcement agencies. We recognize this was a trying time for all officers and appreciate their commitment. During the past year, Ferguson officials have responded to constructive input which has resulted in significant changes with its municipal courts, community engagement and police practices. Just recently, Judge Donald McCullin announced an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued before December 31, 2014 and an order changing the conditions for Pre-Trial Release. In July, Ferguson named Commander Andre Anderson as its Interim Police Chief. The 24-year law enforcement veteran has already begun implementing community policing practices and crime reduction initiatives. The events of August 2014 caused many law enforcement agencies to review their policies and procedures. The City of Ferguson welcomes the opportunity to become a leader in utilizing and implementing innovative law enforcement practices focused on transparency and community trust.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.