Shortly after the protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., I noted here at The Watch that the overly aggressive and militaristic police response to what began as a peaceful protest probably made the ensuing violence inevitable. That is, the police response did more to create violence than to prevent it.
It wasn’t just speculation. Though the tactics we saw in Ferguson have unfortunately become the default for how police now handle protests in the United States, there are some exceptions, and in the cities where the response is more measured and respectful, we’ve seem some positive results. Basically, when cops go into a situation in full riot and military gear, anticipating a confrontation, that expectation tends to become self-fulfilling.
The Huffington Post reports that a forthcoming study from the Justice Department will conclude that this is exactly what happened last summer.
The aggressive tactics with which various law enforcement agencies greeted protesters in the St. Louis region last August following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were deeply flawed and oppressive of citizens exercising their constitutional rights, according to a forthcoming report commissioned by the Justice Department.
The so-called “after-action” report covers the police response to protests in and around Ferguson in the 17-day period following the death of Brown, 18, who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, then a local police officer, on August 9, 2014. The Justice Department’s Office of Community Orienting Policing Services (COPS), which undertook the project in early September, is preparing to release the full report, which is around 200 pages long, in the coming weeks . . .
The report found that having St. Louis County police snipers perch on top of tactical vehicles and point their weapons at crowds of peaceful protesters in broad daylight was “inappropriate” and “served only to exacerbate tensions between the protesters and the police.” Deploying armored vehicles when there was no “danger or peril to citizens or officers” — as law enforcement was found to have done at times — was seen by community members as an attempt to intimidate and threaten.
Officers from more than 50 different law enforcement agencies were present in the area during the period in question, and a lack of consistent policies led to “unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders, and a confusing citizen complaint process,” the report found. Allowing officers to remove their nameplatesand operate anonymously, the report said, “defeated an essential level of on-scene accountability that is fundamental to the perception of procedural justice and legitimacy.”
Deploying dogs was an unwise idea, the report judged, as was firing tear gas without warning on protesters who had nowhere to go. The report also frowned on the practice of violating the constitutional rights of protesters by creating a “vague and arbitrary” rule whereby demonstrators were ordered to “keep moving” and told they couldn’t stand still for more than five seconds at a time.
The traditional debate about protest and civil unrest has always proceeded on the assumption that more freedom means less public safety — that as police give protesters more leeway, it becomes more likely that things will get out of control. Even free-speech advocates sometimes make their case on the assumption that police aggression means safety — they just argue that the First Amendment is important enough to assume some risk. But as I noted last summer, there’s plenty of evidence that this isn’t necessarily true. After-action reports of some of the more infamous examples of protest violence in places such as Ferguson, Seattle, and Oakland, Calif., have shown that aggressive police tactics exacerbated tension and may have created the altercations that led to violence. On the other hand, when police officials have treated protesters with respect and courtesy in cities such as Washington, Nashville and Salt Lake City, it has tended to humanize each side of the protest line in the eyes of the other, and it creates relationships and mutual trust that can then be drawn upon to mitigate tension. It isn’t always about balancing safety with freedom. Most of the time you can have both.