Law enforcement agencies responding to last summer’s heated protests in Ferguson, Mo., reacted too aggressively to the demonstrations, used improper policing techniques and failed to properly plan for long-term situation, according to a draft summary of an upcoming federal report.
This summary, which was obtained by The Washington Post, details problems that the Justice Department found in how law enforcement in the St. Louis area responded to protests that erupted last August after Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
Federal officials write in the summary that they found multiple problems with the way police deployed equipment and tactics, saying that the presence of everything from armored vehicles to police snipers “served to only exacerbate tensions between the protesters and the police.”
It also noted that “tactical officers with military-style uniforms, equipment, weapons and armored vehicles” did not go over well with the public, adding that law enforcement agencies should be more strict about when they use such gear.
Some problems also arose from the number of different agencies responding. The radios used by two agencies could not initially communicate with radios used by two other agencies, it states. In addition, with more than 50 law enforcement agencies responding and little in the way of unified guidance, there were “unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders, and a confusing citizen complaint process.”
On this last point, the report states that the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department each reported one complaint against an officer, while the Ferguson police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol reported zero complaints.
“However, given the size and scope of the protest and the findings outlined within this report, the limited number of filed complaints is misleading,” the summary states. This may have been due to a lack of confidence the public had in law enforcement, it states, before noting that this created problems with attempts by police to communicate with protesters.
The draft summary’s findings were first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, was one of many who questioned the use of military equipment and vehicles that were seen on Ferguson’s streets, and days later President Obama ordered a review of programs supplying military equipment to municipal police forces. Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) acknowledged problems with the official response as the situation persisted last summer, putting the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security after five tense nights.
“Law enforcement staged armored vehicles visibly in a way that was perceived to be threatening to the community and, at times, used them absent danger or peril to citizens or officers,” the draft summary states. It goes on to note that these vehicles should only be used “in narrowly defined circumstances,” including when gunshots are being fired.
The draft report also criticizes law enforcement agencies for failing to understand how social media could impact the demonstrations and the overall narrative. And it states that police erred in offering little information as the situation unfolded, something that protesters repeatedly pointed to in the days after Brown’s death. Many Ferguson residents said at the time that the lack of detail from police, including the delayed release of Wilson’s name, helped fuel their anger.
The Justice Department cleared Wilson in a report released earlier this year, determining that he was justified in shooting Brown. A grand jury also declined to indict him for Brown’s death. The same day the Justice Department cleared him, it also released a blistering report that decried Ferguson’s policing and court practices, citing widespread racial bias and describing a system built upon squeezing money out of African American residents.
After these reports came out, Ferguson’s police chief resigned, while the city manager and the city’s municial judge also left their positions. In addition, two police officers resigned and the court clerk was fired.
While the earlier reports focused on Brown’s death and the city’s overall law enforcement practices, this coming report from the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (also known as COPS) will highlight issues with the way police responded to the sustained protests.
“The COPS office will release the final after-action assessment in the coming weeks, which will convey the findings and lessons learned, following review by the agencies that are involved in the assessment,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “We will have no further comment on the information that was prematurely released until that time.”
Much like the second Justice Department report, which found systemic racism in the patterns and practices of the Ferguson Police Department, the draft report provides vindication for many of those who took to the streets last summer.
From the first days of the unrest, Ferguson residents insisted that Brown’s death was the latest in a long line of incidents in which they felt abused or mistreated by police. The demonstrations, protest leaders have insisted, were about more than whether or not Brown’s hands were up.
The Justice Department’s draft report concludes the same.
“The Ferguson PD lacked community relationships with the residents of Canfield Green Apartments and with the African American community in general,” the report concludes. “The protests were sparked by the Michael Brown shooting, but they were also a manifestation of the long-standing tension between the Ferguson PD and the African American community.”
Those tensions were made worse, the Justice Department concluded, when police agents failed to release information about the shooting to the media, donned heavy and at-times militarized equipment, used police dogs and tear gas for crowd control, and removed their nametags while policing the protests.
“The lack of consistency in policy left to unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders, and a confusing citizen complaint process,” the report states.
That conclusion echoes reporting by The Post, which last October found that even as protests began to cool, the Ferguson Police Department continued — and even accelerated — efforts to suppress peaceful protests using arbitrary and inconsistently applied arrest policies.
The Post concluded that hundreds of peaceful protesters were arrested for violating unwritten rules and minor offenses during the unrest – and for many of those who were arrested it remains unclear if they will face charges.
A draft summary of the report’s findings is shared with the agencies involved so they can provide feedback before the report is publicly released, according to a Justice Department spokesperson.
“This was presented to us as a draft, confidential report, and our responsibility is to work with the COPS office to ensure the accuracy of the draft appendices presented to us,” Jon Belmar, chief of St. Louis County police, said in a statement Tuesday.
A spokesman for Ferguson said in a statement that the city “is reviewing the summary and will act accordingly following the release of the full report.”
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.