Law enforcement agencies failed to fully grasp the deep social significance of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, a miscalculation that only exacerbated underlying tensions in the police response to demonstrations, according to a report released by the Department of Justice Thursday.
The report details a critical examination of more than 100 lessons learned in the aftermath of Brown’s death, meant to inform other police departments around the country of ways to avoid those same mistakes.
This marks the second in-depth report the Justice Department has released since Brown’s death that largely legitimizes the demands from the “Black Lives Matter” movement that grew out of Ferguson, calling for greater accountability to the institutionalized racism seen in police departments and on display during the protests. In many instances, the report found that a lack of preparation and centralized leadership triggered a chain reaction of further problems as law enforcement officials underestimated the resonance and staying power of the demonstrations.
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“In many ways, the demonstrations that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown were more than a moment of discord in one small community; they have become part of a national movement to reform our criminal justice system and represent a new civil rights movement,” Ronald L. Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services wrote in the report.
Hundreds of interviews, social media posts and video footage gathered over the department’s months-long assessment carefully analyzes Brown’s death and the 17 days that followed as the crowds of protesters swelled and police responded with a heavy hand.
The report depicts how the scene unraveled from the moment Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, pulled the trigger killing Brown, an unarmed African-American teen.The report found that police failed to recognize the “powerful emotions … particularly where racial tensions exist” associated with using canine units to disperse crowds and leaving Brown’s body in the middle of the street on a hot August day.
“Many members of the crowd interpreted the police actions as ‘sending a message’ to intimidate the African-American community,” investigators found.
Police anticipated that once officers completed their investigation and the scene was clear, the crowds would slowly die down. But they didn’t. “In over 20 years of working here, this crowd was unlike anything I had ever seen,” one law enforcement supervisor recalled to investigators. The next day hundreds of protesters came out to the scene of the shooting and the nearby strip of W. Florissant Ave. that soon became known as the epicenter of the protests. More than 30 businesses in the area were looted that night, the report found, while the local QuikTrip convenience store went up in flames.
Law enforcement actions intended to disperse crowds only served to exacerbate tensions, the report found. The lack of transparency surrounding the investigation left the community with few answers and further fueled discontent. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew that was soon seen as ineffective. “Rather than eliminating the violence, the curfew appeared to simply change the time the violence occurred,” the report found.
The report was critical of the use of force and instances in which tactics served to undermine community trust at critical junctures. It condemned the use of snipers deployed atop military vehicles, saying the tactic was better suited for active-shooter scenes, but were “ineffective and inappropriate for crowd control.” Police officers also reported back receiving inconsistent orders outlining which activities warranted a protester’s arrest. “There was no standing order,” officers told investigators, “the order changed every day.”
The report also addressed the conditions that the police officers faced. Minority officers in particular were targets of “extreme verbal abuse.” The activist group Anonymous hacked a number of municipal government websites and phone lines, obtaining personal information of the police officers. While Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was hailed in the public for taking an emphatic approach toward the protests groups, interviews with law enforcement revealed that his actions were damaging morale among officers.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Davis said he hoped the report would serve as a road map for the more than 16,000 police departments across the country in updating their policies and ensuring proper training is in place to accommodate a new era of civilian demonstrations.
“There were a lot of unprecedented challenges on how to deal with demonstrations that we had not seen before,” Davis said.