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Area law enforcement agencies will meet with Justice Department over new Ferguson criticisms

Tear gas was used in Ferguson. Nov. 24 2014
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

The four regional law enforcement agencies that responded to the events in Ferguson last year in the first 17 days after Michael Brown’s death lacked protocols, consistent training and policing philosophies, according to a draft summary of a Justice Department report.

A Justice Department source tells St. Louis Public Radio the final report will not be coming out this week, as some have reported, but should be out in the coming weeks after Justice Department officials meet with and consider input from the area law enforcement agencies. 

DOJ officials are scheduled to meet with representatives from the Ferguson, St. Louis Metropolitan and County Police departments along with the Missouri State Highway Patrol this week in Ferguson, according to the same source.

The meeting will focus on a draft summary, leaked to the media, containing 46 findings and recommendations. The review, stamped “DRAFT - Internal Review Only - CONFIDENTIAL,” is subject to comment and potential correction by each of the agencies that confronted protesters in the first days of unrest following Brown’s death.

Among the initial findings by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, or COPS:

  • No effective protocols were in place to handle an event like this; if such protocols had existed, they would have identified the appropriate police resources and procedures to accompany  mutual aid agreements.
  • The agencies were unable to effectively provide command and control for the many responding agencies.
  • Training among officers in the responding agencies was inconsistent.
  • Officers tended toward self-deployment, which reduced officer accountability.

The summary also says the Ferguson Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department “believed the Ferguson incident would be short-lived and focused only on immediate tactical responses; therefor, they did not effectively plan for a long-term operational strategy.”

The first recommendations in the draft summary say that “Officers from different agencies designated to respond should train together and share common policing philosophies and professional standards.” Also, “agencies should have strong policies on self-deployment, and memoranda of understanding and mutual aid agreements should be formalized among the agencies to provide clear and consistent guidelines and procedures.”  

The summary recommends that these guidelines be practiced at “all operation and command levels of the participating agencies."

Use of Force

The draft summary criticizes the use of police dogs by the Ferguson and County Police departments to control crowds on the first day. This was consistent with their own policies, the summary notes, but was “inconsistent with widely accepted policing practices and in fact exacerbated tensions by unnecessarily inciting fear and anger among amassing crowds.”

The draft summary also questions the use of tear gas and what it termed “a lack of thorough documentation” on when tear gas should be used and under what circumstances. It says the investigators compiling the report’s findings “identified instances of tear gas being deployed inappropriately without proper warnings, without sufficient attention paid to safe egress, and without consideration for environmental conditions” including, weather, wind direction, proximity to populated areas and potential impact on citizens and law enforcement officers. 

The draft summary reports no use of rubber bullets, contrary to citizen reports, but it says “Stingerballs, Pepperballs, bean bag rounds and button rounds were used in the first days of the protest response.” And the related recommendation acknowledges that “members of the public can confuse rubber bullets with other forms of less-lethal projectiles.”

It says that when law enforcement is made aware of “nonfactual reports of weapons or tactics being used, immediate steps should be taken to communicate accurate information” and provide clarify to the community.


While the use of a tactical response was warranted at times, the draft summary says “highly elevated” initial response “limited options for a measured, strategic approach.” It also said, the elevated daytime response “was not justified and served to escalate rather than de-escalate the overall situation.” 

The draft recommends limiting the use of tactical units “to a specific and deliberate mission” noting that their use can undermine ”peacekeeper efforts by police.”

Other recommendations

The summary makes several recommendations for training and for reviewing and periodically updating policies and procedures.

Other areas covered include accountability, the use of intelligence and technology. Questions are raised about internal and external communications issues as well as how departments “underestimated the impact social media had on the incident and the speed at which both facts and rumors were spread.” It recommends the agencies develop both the capacity and a strategy for using a social media during emergencies.

Four reports from DOJ

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, also known as COPS, is preparing what is known as an After Action Report on the critical early days that set the tone of confrontation between law enforcement and protesters.

A statement from the COPS office, issued after the  draft summary was leaked to the media, said the draft summary was shared with the relevant agencies “to enable them to provide feedback, and identify potential inaccuracies, in advance of the report publication.” The statement also said the final report will include “findings and lessons learned,” following a review by the agencies involved in the assessment. The office said it would not make further comments on the information that was “prematurely released” until the final report is issued.

In all there will be four reports from the Justice Department flowing from the events in Ferguson. The first two reports were released in February by then Attorney General Eric Holder. One report, from the Civil Rights Division, said Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson was justified based on the evidence and several witness accounts. That same report discredited numerous the witness accounts that said Brown was attempting to surrender at the time he was killed.

The other report issued in February documented what Holder called a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices on the part of Ferguson and its court officials including the allegation that many police encounters in Ferguson and the community’s black residents were aimed primarily at abusively raising revenue for the city and court system.  

Ferguson is in talks with the Justice Department over a potential consent decree for how the city will address and correct its police and court procedures.

This summary report comes as part of the COPS office critical response to such events. The final report in such cases normally includes recommendations for corrective actions and training.

A fourth report will focus on what is known as collaborative reform. This process, requested by the County Police Department, is similar to COPS reviews but is conducted by an independent entity that works with the agency and helps the department develop best practices for engagement with the community it serves.

That program provides training on such things as inherent bias, which are the biases everyone has, even those who strongly believe they are unbiased, and on methods to de-escalate potentially tense situations and keep them from getting out of hand.

The collaborative reform process takes about two years to complete.