ST. LOUIS — Following weeks of intense negotiations, local police officials and Ferguson protesters have agreed to a dozen policies for how any future protests will be policed — but have yet to reach consensus over whether tear gas and riot gear will be used or whether the protesters will get advance notice of when the grand jury will announce its decision regarding Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson.
The negotiations have centered on 19 “Rules of Engagement” proposed by a coalition of 50 community and civil rights groups in an effort to avoid the violent clashes that brought worldwide attention to Ferguson after the shooting of a black teenager in August.
The list is largely a docket of best police practices, such as “the first priority shall be preservation of human life” and “excessive force and other forms of police misconduct will not be tolerated.” In general, protesters have agreed to peaceful demonstrations if police don’t interfere, while police have agreed to respect demonstrators’ right to assemble as long as there is no violence.
Negotiations on Tuesday continued to stall, however, over seven of the proposals, including the coalition’s request to give protesters 48 hours’ notice prior to the grand jury announcement.
The three police departments — called the “unified command” for police response to protests — have also not agreed to the coalition’s request that police be dressed in minimal gear and that tear gas, tactical vehicles and rubber bullets not be used, a coalition leader said.
“You don’t approach peaceful protesters in your community as if they’re enemy combatants and expect that not to be a problem,” said Denise Lieberman, co-chair of the coalition.
It is also unclear whether the unified command will agree not to employ mass arrests during peaceful protests, and not to escalate the response when dealing with minor criminal offenses such as a water bottle being thrown at an officer — which was the precipitating factor for tear gas being deployed on at least one night during the protests in August.
“There’s been quite a bit of progress, but there is still discussion needed around several of the terms,” Lieberman added.
Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson confirmed that the unified command has reached agreement on a dozen items but would not discuss points of disagreement, saying, “We agreed we wouldn’t discuss the finer points publicly.”
Other leaders of the unified command include St. Louis City Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar. Johnson said coalition leaders will now discuss negotiations with their members — including some counterproposals on some items — and return to the unified command to hopefully reach a final agreement by Friday.
The tentative agreement came on the same day Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon took a step toward addressing long-term community concerns by appointing 16 members to the Ferguson Commission, a newly crafted and diverse body charged with proposing systemic and policy changes in response to the outrage following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“These are issues that run deep in our community, and deep in our country,” Nixon told reporters after appointing the commission members
“Clearly, we live in a society where there are existing inequalities. This presents us with the opportunity to address [them] maturely but aggressively.”
The commission will be co-chaired by the Rev. Starsky Wilson, who has been active in the protests and is well known in regional philanthropic circles, and Rich McClure, a prominent member of the St. Louis business community.
The commission has been given until September 2015 to issue a comprehensive report of policy recommendations, but also has the option of issuing recommendations on a rolling basis.
The co-chairmen said they plan to use the commission to probe the city/county government structure — which, in the months since Brown’s death, observers have often pointed to as a source of many of the systemic inequities in the region.
Among the others named to the commission are Dan Isom, a former police chief who is currently the director of the state Department of Public Safety; Grayling Tobias, a local school superintendent; and Kevin Ahlbrand, president if the Missouri State Fraternal Order of Police.
Protest leaders also praised the selection of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Teach for America executive director Brittany Packnett and 20-year-old Rasheen Aldridge — all of whom had been active in the protests.
“Protesting got us here, protesting got us a commission,” Aldridge said. “This is about making sure there isn’t another Mike Brown.”
Police departments around the country are bracing for large demonstrations as soon as this weekend, when a grand jury is expected to decide whether to indict Wilson.
On Monday, Gov. Nixon declared a preemptive state of emergency to allow the National Guard to help local law enforcement prepare for any unrest. The announcement, meant to project a feeling of safety, riled up protest groups and local elected officials.
Johnson and Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said that some of the concerns were based on erroneous rumors that were circulating, including that tanks were moving into the city. Johnson said, “This community will not see tanks.” Reports that the National Guard will be using “attack helicopters” and drones are also false, O’Connell said. “They aren’t even authorized to use drones.”
Johnson and Dotson both said that the National Guard will be largely used to protect property. The unified command has identified 35 to 40 locations — most of them within strip malls and shopping centers — where there has been property destruction during past demonstrations.
“We had 25 window smashings in August,” Dotson said. “We will use the National Guard and pair them with those locations so the public feels safe. The everyday public gets lost in the conversation. We talk about police and protesters, and they get lost.”