Almost from the very moment when an unidentified police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, police in Ferguson have behaved as if they were literally under siege. A sniper, perched on top of an armored military vehicle is one of the iconic images of the police response to the men and women protesting Brown’s death. Tear gas, rubber bullets and similar weapons have been fired against the protesters. And, while there have been no reports of police using live ammunition against peaceful protesters, the type of rounds police have fired against civilians do not exactly suggest that law enforcement is showing much restraint in Ferguson:
Good law enforcement officers know better than this. Mike Masterson is Chief of the Boise, Idaho Police Department and a 40-year veteran of law enforcement. He began his career in Madison, Wisconsin, during an era of widespread student protests. In his own words, Masterson helped manage protests and mass gatherings ranging from “antiapartheid demonstrations and dismantling of shantytowns on capitol property to an annual alcohol-laden Halloween festival.”
In a 2012 article for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Masterson laid out the conclusions reached by law enforcement agencies around the world who’d researched the best way for police to interact with a crowd that has the potential to become disruptive. The answer: police should do more or less the exact opposite of what they have done in Ferguson.
According to Masterson, the “leading scientific theory of crowd psychology,” which was developed by British researchers studying soccer hooliganism, “maintains that crowd violence escalates if people think police officers treat them unfairly.” Related research advises police that “group members comply with the law when they perceive that officers act with justice and legitimacy.”
Research also supports the “Madison Method of Handling People in Crowds and Demonstrations,” which emphasizes that police best promote the public order when they respect the legal rights of citizens. As Masterson explains,
This approach begins with defining the mission and safeguarding the fundamental rights of people to gather and speak out legally. The philosophy should reflect the agency’s core values in viewing citizens as customers. This focus is not situational; it cannot be turned on and off depending on the crisis.
Law enforcement agencies facilitate and protect the public’s right to free speech and assembly. When officers realize they are at a protest to ensure these rights, they direct their responses accordingly, from planning to implementing the plan. Officers must have a well-defined mission that encourages the peaceful gathering of people and uses planning, open communication, negotiation, and leadership to accomplish this goal.
Compare this model to the events in Ferguson, where a Missouri state senator complained that she was tear-gassed while she was peacefully protesting the Brown shooting, where a St. Louis alderman who has chronicled the events in Ferguson on Twitter was arrested Wednesday night for allegedly joining an “unlawful assembly,” and where two journalists were arrested and assaulted by police for the apparent crime of being in a McDonald’s.
Police in Ferguson committed another serious error, according to Masterson. “Officers,” Masterson explains, “must avoid donning their hard gear as a first step” (Hard gear is the police term for riot gear such as helmets and body armor). Similarly, police departments should “prevent their officers from becoming anonymous agents.” Officers’ names and badge numbers should be “clearly visible.” “Obscurity or depersonalization of officers,” Masterson warns, “encourages negative crowd behavior and leads to unaccountable actions.”
In Ferguson, by contrast, police repeatedly refused requests by Wesley Lowery, one of the journalists arrested Wednesday night, to reveal the badge numbers of the officers responsible for his arrest.
The research highlighted by Masterson does more than simply suggest that police should make information readily available to the public, it claims that officers should actively produce a record that can be used to judge whether they have behaved responsibly. “Agencies should videotape events,” and “[t]o safeguard the First Amendment and privacy rights of those participating in the event, agencies should adopt a policy governing retention and destruction of these tapes.”
Other research demonstrates that, when police know that their actions will be recorded on video, they are far less likely to engage in misconduct. A Police Foundation study conducted with the Rialto, California Police Department, for example, found a dramatic drop in public complaints and police use of force after officers were equipped with cameras in their uniforms. “Shifts without cameras,” according to this study, “experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras.” Similarly, the number of complaints against officers diminished “from 28 complaints filed lodged in the 12 months before the trial [of cameras on uniforms] to the 3 during the trial.”
Had the unnamed officer who shot Michael Brown been equipped with a camera, it is possible that he would have hesitated before firing the bullet that killed the young African American man. In any event, however, nothing can be done now to restore the life that was ended by that officer’s gun this past weekend.
What police can do is deescalate their standoff with protesters angered by this shooting. They can get rid of the military equipment, and put away their riot gear unless it is necessary to don it. They can send the SWAT teams home. They can stop firing tear gas and wooden rounds at the protesters. And they can stop interfering with journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens trying to make a record of what is going on in Ferguson.
If they do these things, one advantage is that the images reported in the press will no longer feature armed and armored lines of cops arrayed against unarmed civilians. But, more importantly, if police deescalate, they will be acting in accordance with the best research explaining how police should respond to an agitated crowd.