Intimidating, Unconstitutional Police Tactics In Ferguson Incited More Unrest, Says DOJ Expert Report

06/30/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The aggressive tactics with which various law enforcement agencies greeted protesters in the St. Louis region last August following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were deeply flawed and oppressive of citizens exercising their constitutional rights, according to a forthcoming report commissioned by the Justice Department.

The so-called "after-action" report covers the police response to protests in and around Ferguson in the 17-day period following the death of Brown, 18, who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, then a local police officer, on August 9, 2014. The Justice Department's Office of Community Orienting Policing Services (COPS), which undertook the project in early September, is preparing to release the full report, which is around 200 pages long, in the coming weeks.

A confidential summary of the draft findings of the report was recently provided to the law enforcement agencies involved in the protest response and subsequently obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Huffington Post obtained a copy of the summary findings on Tuesday.

The report found that having St. Louis County police snipers perch on top of tactical vehicles and point their weapons at crowds of peaceful protesters in broad daylight was "inappropriate" and "served only to exacerbate tensions between the protesters and the police." Deploying armored vehicles when there was no "danger or peril to citizens or officers" -- as law enforcement was found to have done at times -- was seen by community members as an attempt to intimidate and threaten.

Officers from more than 50 different law enforcement agencies were present in the area during the period in question, and a lack of consistent policies led to "unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders, and a confusing citizen complaint process," the report found. Allowing officers to remove their nameplates and operate anonymously, the report said, "defeated an essential level of on-scene accountability that is fundamental to the perception of procedural justice and legitimacy."

Deploying dogs was an unwise idea, the report judged, as was firing tear gas without warning on protesters who had nowhere to go. The report also frowned on the practice of violating the constitutional rights of protesters by creating a "vague and arbitrary" rule whereby demonstrators were ordered to "keep moving" and told they couldn't stand still for more than five seconds at a time.

The report found that members of the community "repeatedly expressed their belief that there was a difference in the nature of the activities between day and night" -- the main difference being that the daytime protests were peaceful -- but that citizens "perceived law enforcement as applying the same tactics day and night."

Additionally, the report found that policies made it "difficult or impossible to lodge complaints" about officer conduct, and that there was a "lack of confidence in the complaint process" that likely deterred citizens from even bothering to try. Both the Ferguson Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol reported receiving zero citizen complaints about officer conduct during the time frame examined, while the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department reported receiving just one complaint each about officer conduct during the 17 days of unrest.

The report also found that two of those four agencies used radio systems that were "incompatible" with the systems used by the other two, meaning the law enforcement groups operating in Ferguson had trouble even talking to one another. Law enforcement agencies also provided limited information in the initial days of unrest -- which "set a negative tone for media relations for the rest of the incident" -- and failed to set up a joint media operation, which "could have reduced or eliminated some of the conflict between law enforcement and the media and improved relations with the community."

Law enforcement agencies operating in Ferguson were also unprepared for the impact of social media outlets like Twitter on the coverage and pubic understanding about the protests, the report found. They "underestimated the impact social media had on the incident," and social media was "the key global driver of information and opinion, which shaped many aspects of the Ferguson incident."

The "intensity of the circumstances and the length of the event" left officers fatigued and stressed, which "impacted health, well-being, judgment, and performance," the report found. Ferguson took a "physical and an emotional toll" on officers, which "impacted both physical and emotional endurance." Officers and their families were also not prepared for the "volume and severity of personal threats," which "created additional emotional stress for those involved in the Ferguson response," according to the report.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, in an interview with The Huffington Post last month, said that Ferguson was "new ground" for his department and that he was "anxious" to see the report.

"I can say this with authority: There wasn't a senior commander down there who had seen anything like what happened in August. So it's really new for us to go through, and I think it is incumbent upon us to learn from that and make sure that we move forward," Belmar said.

Back in August, Belmar said he had "never envisioned" using tactical equipment against protesters, but he largely defended his department's approach. Belmar said at the time that he personally instructed officers who had their snipers trained on a crowd of peaceful protesters to "lower the rifles [and] grab the binoculars." The summary report stated that law enforcement "should never use overwatch" -- described as a procedure where police snipers took position "on top of tactical vehicles and used their rifle sights to monitor the crowd" -- for the purpose of crowd control during mass gatherings.

"What happened last August was that the overwhelming majority of people that were out there were there for the right reasons," Belmar told The Huffington Post last month. "They really were, and that was evident. You could see that right away. Yeah, they were angry, they were emotional, but they were there for the right reasons." But, Belmar said, there was a "very, very small, but very, very active group of violent people that really drove the agitation."

Belmar said in a statement on Tuesday that the summary document was "presented to us as a draft, confidential report" and that the police department would "work with the COPS office to ensure the accuracy of the draft appendices presented to us."

In a statement, a Justice Department official said that the summary was "prematurely released," and that the draft copy of the findings provided to law enforcement agencies was intended to allow the departments to "provide feedback, and identify potential inaccuracies, in advance of the report publication." The final version will be released "in the coming weeks," the official said.

Disclosure: On Aug. 13, 2014, this reporter was detained and assaulted in Ferguson by an officer from the St. Louis County Police Department who was not wearing a nameplate and who repeatedly refused to identify himself. The reporter subsequently filed a complaint with the St. Louis County Police Department's Bureau of Professional Standards, which may be the only formal complaint received by the office about an officer's conduct during the 17-day period that experts examined.

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