Despite federal and state attempts to intervene during the two months since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed, the Ferguson Police Department continued — and even accelerated — efforts to suppress peaceful protests using arbitrary and inconsistently applied arrest policies, according to Justice Department officials who are investigating the department and county police officials who have since taken over for the city.
A Washington Post review of city, county and state arrest records, and interviews with Justice Department officials, Ferguson and St. Louis County police chiefs, dozens of protesters and several civil rights officials reveal numerous questionable practices.
Hundreds of protesters have been arrested since August for violating unwritten rules and committing minor offenses, such as failure to disperse or unlawful assembly, and for violating a noise ordinance. Many have been taken to jail without being told what charges they may face and have often been released without any paperwork. For weeks, officers employed a “five-second rule” under which any protester who stopped walking was subject to arrest — a policy ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge this week. At least one officer patrolling protests wore a wristband that said “I am Darren Wilson,” referencing the officer whom protesters want jailed and prosecuted for the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown. County Police Chief Jon Belmar confirmed that an officer wore one of the wristbands and said that he understood why protesters felt taunted.
And, in recent weeks, protesters have complained that bail amounts are rising, jail time has increased and their organizers were routinely plucked from crowds of 100 to 300 people and arrested.
The controversial practices continued into October, until Belmar stepped in — stripping jurisdiction for policing the protests from the thinly stretched Ferguson station. In an interview with The Post, Belmar said that, under the Ferguson Police Department’s command, laws and policies were being enforced arbitrarily.
“We have a real issue when we start taking away people’s ability to express their opinions,” Belmar said.
Belmar’s team takes over as the black residents of greater St. Louis remain intensely skeptical of officers. Tensions again flared Wednesday night when residents got word of another police shooting. Dozens of protesters surfaced in St. Louis, where an 18-year-old black man was shot and killed after allegedly fleeing and shooting at an off-duty officer. The man’s family members and protesters insist he was unarmed. Police say they’ve recovered a weapon.
There is potential for more tension this weekend when hundreds of out-of-town protesters are expected to flood Ferguson and the St. Louis metro area for a series of organized demonstrations against police mistreatment.
Officials with the Ferguson Police Department did not respond to Post requests for comment about the criticism they are facing.
In an earlier interview about the Justice Department’s intervention and help, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson continued to defend his officers.
“Even if it’s a small group, there’s a very effective group of violent individuals who are looking for confrontation and the best way to avoid that confrontation is to bring in assistance from other agencies,” Jackson said. “So although it doesn’t feel good to need to have assistance, I am deeply grateful to those who have come to help us, and I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude or make it up to them.”
On Sept. 4, the Justice Department announced that its Community Oriented Policing Service Office would begin to work with community groups and police officials in St. Louis to assess and make recommendations regarding officer training, use of force, handling mass demonstrations, stops, searches, arrests, and fair and impartial policing. The department is also conducting a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
The breaking point for Belmar with the Ferguson department’s handling of recent protests came last week, when arrests that were captured on video by a CNN freelance journalist showed a loud but otherwise peaceful group of protesters demonstrating outside the Ferguson police station. The protesters were ordered to move from the street to the sidewalk, and as the group raced back, an officer in a brown uniform was recorded saying, “Get them.”
Belmar said he watched the video at home and decided that night that his department would take over the crowd-control efforts. He said the incident illustrated problems he hopes to eliminate, in which protesters are arrested based on an arbitrary application of rules and laws, a frustration also held in the halls of the Justice Department.
“They were arrested for violating a noise ordinance. I hadn’t noticed us enforcing that,” he said. “So I wondered why, all of a sudden, why are we doing this now?”
Two months ago, Belmar’s team would have seemed an unlikely solution to burning tension between protesters and police.
Ferguson Police Chief Jackson immediately handed control over to Belmar after the shooting, and it was Belmar’s officers who rolled into Ferguson in armored trucks, wearing helmets and camouflage and carrying automatic rifles during the protests that immediately followed Brown’s death.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all sent legal teams to document the response and criticized the department for inciting rather than quelling violence.
Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in the days that followed, giving the Missouri Highway Patrol command of the protests for two weeks.
On Sept. 3, Nixon lifted it, shifting control for the first time to the Ferguson Police Department.
Things quickly deteriorated, according to records and interviews with federal and St. Louis law enforcement. Ferguson’s force of 54 people was spread too thin.
During the weeks that protests were policed by the Ferguson department, arresting officers sometimes weren’t wearing name tags, prompting repeated reprimands from the Justice Department. Meanwhile, protesters say their organizers were being targeted. On nights when crowds of more than 100 people stood chanting “We’re Young. We’re Strong. We’re marching all night long” and “Indict Darren Wilson. If we don’t get it, shut it down,” there would be just a handful of arrests — almost always of protest organizers.
At times, just three or four Ferguson police officers were able to staff nightly protests, Belmar said.
“They couldn’t provide the majority of resources down there,” he said.
Community members who have been regular protesters, however, said the problems with Ferguson officers went beyond staffing.
Some describe being taken away in handcuffs by officers who couldn’t decide what to charge them with — a problem that Belmar confirmed was an issue.
“They were asking each other, ‘What is the charge?’ They couldn’t figure it out. I’m being taken away in handcuffs, and they don’t even know why,” said Gwen Cogshell, 57, of Ferguson, who was arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly” at a Sept. 10 protest where demonstrators tried to shut down Interstate 70. “They really are not trained to do anything but give tickets.”
It’s difficult to know precisely how many people have been arrested since Brown’s shooting. An assortment of law enforcement agencies has been conducting arrests, with detained protesters sometimes being held in the Ferguson Police Department’s jail and other times at a county facility.
A Post analysis of arrest records from Ferguson, county police and the Missouri Highway Patrol shows 258 people have been arrested — 95 percent of them booked on either a charge of refusal to disperse or unlawful assembly. Less than a dozen were for more serious charges, such as disorderly conduct. There was only a handful of assault and burglary charges.
The Ferguson Police Department have made at least 19 arrests at protests. A majority of protesters, 11, were charged with a “failure to comply” with an officer’s order, meaning they did not follow an officer’s instruction, such as moving or leaving a protest site, records show. Only one protester was booked on a serious charge, “discharging a firearm in city limits.”
Cogshell was also one of more than a dozen people, interviewed by The Post, who said they left jail with no paperwork, unclear about what charges they might face.
Anthony Rothert, the ACLU’s legal director in Missouri, described it as a “catch and release program,” adding that his organization has “never seen mass arrests where people are released without any paperwork and then told charges may come later.”
Though some of the complaints have to do with the competency of police, most focused on targeted efforts by Ferguson police to quash dissent.
They focused, for example, on the targeting of protest leaders.
“This is a logical extension of the militarized response, part of what we’re seeing is kind of par for the course, it’s how the state deals with dissent,” said the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a Boston minister with St. Louis ties who has been active in the protests. He was the first protester arrested on a recent night.
And, protesters allege, the targeting extends to how protesters are treated while in custody. Sekou said that after his arrest, he was placed in the back of a police van where the walls were smeared with blood.
On some nights, Ferguson police officers bartered with protesters — offering to release those arrested sooner if the remaining protesters would disperse.
“It’s a hostage negotiation, plain and simple,” said Umar Lee, an independent journalist and Muslim activist who has been arrested twice while documenting the Ferguson protests. “Any time you randomly arrest people and tell people ‘we’ll let them out if you go home,’ that’s a hostage situation.”
Belmar said that the incident was “not appropriate” and that protesters should never be used as “a bargaining chip” to end demonstrations.
In the days since taking over for the Ferguson Police Department, county police have maintained what appears to be a less-hostile relationship with protesters. There were no arrests during the first four nights that they were in charge of crowd control.
But on Friday, Belmar and his officers are expected to start dealing with some of the largest demonstrations since the Brown shooting, with a series of protests scheduled Friday through Sunday called “Ferguson October: A Weekend of Resistance.” Crowds could match the size and furor last seen during the days immediately after Brown’s shooting.
Still, Belmar vows that efforts to stop peaceful protests are a thing of the past and said the five-second rule and other efforts to move protesters around and keep them from organizing and communicating will not be tolerated.
“If you want to protest and you are on a public sidewalk or easement, there are not issues, period,” he said. “We want to take a relaxed attitude.”
Robert Samuels, Sandhya Somashekhar and Julie Tate contributed to this report.