Police departments nationwide can learn from mistakes made a year ago in Ferguson, Mo., from law enforcement’s mishandling of protests that turned violent after the police shooting of an unarmed black man.
The Justice Department in its third report on the case was right to point out that the already strained relationship between majority black St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people and police was made worse by law enforcement’s mishandling of protests that followed 18-year-old Michael Brown being fatally shot Aug. 9, 2014, by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
More than 50 law enforcement agencies took part in the police response to protests after Brown was shot and lay in the street for about four hours near 2947 Canfield Drive. The Justice Department report focuses on the four primary agencies — the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis Police Department, the Missouri Highway Patrol and Ferguson police.
The report correctly detailed inconsistent leadership in tactical orders, police failure to understand the problems in the community, a lack of community policing, officers having a reactive instead of a proactive strategy with demonstrators, poor communication causing strategic uncertainty within law enforcement agencies and the community, ineffective and inappropriate actions that infringed on people’s constitutional rights, and a lack of law enforcement continuity. Police had no protocols or training for such an event, which could occur more now with the Black Lives Matter movement taking hold.
The report was right to criticize the police use of military weapons, tear gas, canine units and sniper deployment for inflaming tensions and creating fear among protesters. The report also said the use of less-lethal weapons was not centralized or tracked.
Social media was used inappropriately resulting in “inaccurate, sometimes conflicting and misleading information,” which “further inflamed emotions of the protesters,” the report said. During the protests, some officers removed their nameplates defeating “an essential level of on-scene accountability that is fundamental to the perception of procedural justice and legitimacy.”
Earlier Justice Department reports cleared Wilson of any charges in Brown’s death. But the second report on Ferguson police criticized the department and the city for routinely violating African Americans’ civil rights in the use of racial profiling to stop, ticket and fine blacks, who were used as a revenue source for Ferguson.
For context, it was good that Ronald L. Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, wrote in the new report: “It is our hope that the lessons learned in Ferguson will provide guidance to the more than 16,000 police departments around the country and will prepare these agencies to respond effectively and constitutionally to the challenges of mass demonstrations in the 21st century. 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.
“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.”
The protesters themselves did not get a free pass in the report. Their behavior was awful, too.
The report noted that protesters subjected police to threats to their families, hacking and publishing officers personal information, and cyberattacks, including breaches of some officers’ home wireless systems. Minority officers also were subjected to extreme verbal abuse.
“Advance trainings and briefings in future events must prepare these officers for this type of treatment,” the report said.