In the direct aftermath of Michael Brown's death in August 2014, police in Ferguson, Missouri displayed inconsistent leadership, used ineffective strategies to respond to protests, and failed to understand endemic problems within the community—among other shortcomings—according to a new report published Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department.
The report, After-Action Assessment of the Police Response to the August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri (pdf), conducted by a research team from the Florida-based nonprofit Institute for Intergovernmental Research for the DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services office, analyzed the 17 days immediately following Brown's death.
During that time, law enforcement officers erred in 113 individual ways—from excessive use of force to the controversial "Keep Moving" orders later deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
A look at six overarching "themes" shows that those problems "permeated all aspects of the police response," the report states. "Ferguson is a vivid reminder that law enforcement agencies must continually analyze their policing practices in relation to the communities they serve."
Researchers identified 10 "most critical" issues among their findings. Those include:
- A lack of community relations between officers and residents, both in the Canfield Green Apartments where Brown was killed and with Ferguson's majority-black population at large. "The protests were sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, but they were also a manifestation of the long-standing tension between the Ferguson PD and the African-American community," the report states.
- Poor communication between the many law enforcement agencies involved in responding to the initial protests—hitting 50 individual forces at its peak—which in turn elevated conflict and tension between police and residents. "That lack of consistency in policy led to unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders, and a confusing citizen complaint process," the researchers write.
- Use of force, such as tear gas and deployment of canines for crowd control, was "an inappropriate and ineffective strategy."
- The use of military equipment and weapons to dispel peaceful demonstrations, which "served to escalate rather than de-escalate the overall situation."
- The police departments of both Ferguson and St. Louis County did not have previous training and long-term preparation for widespread community action, which led to a lack of problem-solving or operational strategies.
- Law enforcement underestimated the role that social media played in quickly spreading new information from the ground and failed to establish their own social media strategy.
- Police both failed to protect and actively violated constitutional rights of protesters, such as in the case of the "Keep Moving" order that allowed officers to target demonstrators for standing still, walking "too slowly," or walking back and forth in one area.
- Officers escaped accountability from citizen complaints by removing nameplates and badges, which "defeated an essential level of on-scene accountability that is fundamental to the perception of procedural justice and legitimacy."
- Civilian personnel and police officers alike were unprepared for the physical and emotional toll involved in crowd control.
- Officers did not do enough to respond to cases of outside agitators, even after being alerted to their presence by community members and local protesters.
"Ferguson became a defining moment in policing history," the report continues.
The outburst of actions and the police response that followed—now preserved through images of soaring tear gas canisters, rolling military tanks, and crowds of protesters marching with raised arms—exposed "complex interaction of forces including poverty, poor race relations, social inequity, and education."
"The need for significant change remains in the political, economic, and social culture of Ferguson, as it does in other cities and towns in the United States," the researchers concluded. "Police reform, responsiveness, and renewed commitment to understanding the essence of the communities that law enforcement agencies serve are important elements required to rebuild community trust, restore confidence in the criminal justice system, and move forward to a better future."
It's the latest analysis of such institutional failures in Ferguson. In March, the DOJ published a separate study which found widespread racism in the city's police department, from its officers to its policies. Just a few months later, Amnesty International released a report on the systemic human rights abuses carried out by those same law enforcement agencies and outlined a series of recommendations for policing of protests, in Ferguson and nationwide.