Almost one year ago, the shooting death of Michael Brown sparked a wave of protests over the teen’s death and the general mistreatment of black lives in Ferguson. Police responded with riot gear and tear gas, leaving many demonstrators wounded — including an 8-year-old boy.
Now, a DOJ document obtained by the Post-Dispatch faults Ferguson police for their aggressive response to protesters last August. In a summary of its third Ferguson report, which is soon to be released, the DOJ contends officers from Ferguson, St. Louis County, St. Louis and Missouri Highway Patrol “violated citizens’ right to assembly and free speech, as determined by a U.S. federal court injunction.”
According to the document, “vague and arbitrary” orders, combined with a “highly elevated tactical response,” including the use of military-grade equipment, resulted in “limited options for a measured, strategic approach.” For instance, several tactics exacerbated tensions during the uprising, such as using dogs to intimidate protesters, using rifle sights on armed vehicles to watch over civilians, and throwing tear gas at demonstrators who had no means of fleeing the scene. Tactical operations used during the day time were unjustified, and the four law enforcement agencies that responded to the protests used inconsistent and ineffective methods to de-escalate crowds. Officers with varied levels of training were “ineffectively” controlled, and Ferguson officials further inflamed civil unrest by releasing details about Brown’s shooting too slowly.
On the flip side, the report says officers removed their name tags because they “were not prepared for the volume and severity of personal threats on themselves and their families, which created additional emotional stress for those involved in the Ferguson response. This includes threats of violence against family members and fraud associated with technology based attacks.” That stress caused poor judgment and unsatisfactory officer performance.
Responding to the latest DOJ findings, St. Louis Chief Sam Dotson told the Post-Dispatch. “I don’t know if I agree with them or not, because I don’t have enough information.” After the 200-page report is released, the DOJ will release a fourth report about the St. Louis County Police Department.
The summary’s release comes three months after the St. Louis Police, St. Louis County Police, and Missouri Highway Patrol settled a lawsuit filed by six Ferguson protesters, agreeing to restrict tear gas and other chemical agents used against demonstrators. Soon thereafter, leaked documents revealed the Missouri National Guard used military language to describe protesters, dubbing them “enemy forces” and “adversaries.”
But the events in Ferguson inspired an executive order by President Obama that effectively ended the transfer of certain military-grade equipment to local police departments, including “weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms.”
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” he said.