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Justice Department report finds uncoordinated police response to Ferguson protests

Protesters are greeted by lines of state and county police during a demonstration march on the Ferguson police station on August 11, 2014.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI

A report by the U.S. Department of Justice examines a chaotic and often uncoordinated response to the protests that erupted after the shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2014.

The Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services on Wednesday released its after-action report on the police response to the 17 days between when Brown was shot and killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and his funeral.

The problems identified included inconsistent leadership, lack of community connection and communication difficulties within law enforcement and with citizens. The report also discussed the toll taken on officers and ways to balance their safety and the ability of citizens to identify problems.

The report

Though officers from more than 50 agencies deployed to the protest zone during those 17 days, the report only evaluated the St. Louis Metropolitan, St. Louis County and Ferguson police departments, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. 

The report was not intended to lay blame on any one department, the Justice Department said, but to catalog observations and findings. The process included interviews with officers who deployed to the protest zone. It also included reviews of media reports about the protest, departmental documentation such as dispatch logs and incident reports, and research about crowd control and incident response.

“It is our hope that the lessons learned in Ferguson will provide guidance to the more than 16,000 police departments around the country and will prepare these agencies to respond effectively and constitutionally to the challenges of mass demonstrations in the 21st century,” said Ronald L. Davis, the director of the COPS office, in a statement in the report.

“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.”

The Issues

The DOJ found six themes that “permeated all aspects of the police report.” They formed the basis for 48 findings and 113 “lessons learned.” The themes are:

  1. Inconsistent leadership
  2. Failure to understand endemic problems in the community
  3. A reactive rather than proactive strategy
  4. Inadequate communication and information sharing
  5. Use of ineffective and inappropriate strategies and tactics
  6. A lack of law enforcement response continuity

The report found that the problems reinforced and contributed to each other. For example, the initial response relied on a mutual aid agreement known as Code 1000. However, the DOJ noted, the call for a Code 1000 often means officers head to a scene on their own, rather than being deployed there by commanders. That makes it difficult to ensure a coordinated response.
The main agencies also failed to consider that the protests would last for longer than a few days. When the extended length of the protest became apparent, the DOJ said, the lead agencies failed to fully implement a response protocol known as the National Incident Management System. That led to problems with sharing information and intelligence, both among police departments and with the public.

When it came to the use of force and crowd-control strategies, the DOJ found several cases in which law enforcement response ran contrary to best policing practices. For example, the report said, the use of SWAT teams and armored vehicles known as Bearcats may have been warranted in certain situations, but only exacerbated tensions in others. While some departments used police canines appropriately, they were also used for crowd control, including once by a “deputy city marshal” from a neighboring village who was not a sworn police officer in Missouri. Police also deployed tear gas inappropriately, by failing to give warnings and shooting it off too close to residential areas. 

Clouds of tear gas engulf W. Florissant Ave on Aug. 17, 2014.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren/St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Clouds of tear gas engulf W. Florissant Ave on Aug. 17, 2014.

The heavily armed response by the police worsened already poor relationships between Ferguson and the police. The DOJ found that the Ferguson police department had “virtually no established community relationship with the residents of the Canfield Green Apartments, where [Michael] Brown was killed, or with much of the African-American community in Ferguson.” That “negatively impacted the response of all agencies involved, and was a barrier to responding agencies’ efforts to communicate effectively with the community.”

The report also found that the uncoordinated response led to problems with officer well-being. “Officers and civilian personnel 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,” the DOJ said. Following the full National Incident Management System response protocol would have put one person in charge of officer safety, and led to better coordination of logistics.

The Lessons Learned

The four agencies worked with the Department of Justice to develop the 113 lessons learned. They include:

  • More frequent joint training among the more than 60 departments in St. Louis County to ensure that officers who may respond in situations such as these know what is expected of them.
  • Clear protocols for mutual aid responses, including strong policies on officer self-deployment.
  • Clear communication of expectations and policies from incident commanders to front-line officers.
  • More attention to the way police response may be viewed by the public.
  • Clear communication with the public, both in the protest zone and through media.


The city of Ferguson declined to comment on the report. The other departments all sounded similar tones in written statements.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol said it had “already implemented lessons learned from its own reviews of events in Ferguson, which has included listening to the concerns of members of the public. The Patrol is committed to continuing the process of strengthening trust and improving law enforcement-community relations."

"The many adaptations made by law enforcement in Ferguson during the 17-day incident period, including their work to engage residents and respond to community concerns, were important factors in preventing the loss of life or serious injuries. The Missouri State Highway Patrol is particularly indebted to the hundreds of individual Patrol members from across the state who willingly and tirelessly responded to the Ferguson area despite the threats and stress that came with their dedicated service there. These men and women, along with their families, are to be commended for their resilience and many sacrifices. " 

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said it “welcomed the conversation, and [we] were prepared to have open dialog about what we did well and which areas we needed to improve upon."

“What our officers encountered during those first 17-days of unrest has forever changed policing. We acknowledge such change by the progressive steps our department has taken to build better community relationships.”

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his department also welcomed the chance to participate in the after-action report, and that he was “extremely proud of both the sworn and professional staff of the St. Louis County Police Department. Their bearing, professionalism, and dedication to duty have been nothing short of outstanding. I remain forever indebted to the sacrifices they and their families endured."

“Finally, while this is a critically important report, it serves only as a snapshot of two and a half weeks in August of 2014; it falls short as a complete lesson for others in our profession to follow as a guide. This report would have immeasurably benefited from a detailing of the continued law enforcement response to the subsequent events during the fall of 2014, to include the Grand Jury announcement; the management of unrest in the winter and spring of 2015; and of course the anniversary of Mr. Brown’s death in August of 2015. Nevertheless, I appreciate the professionalism of the IIR’s outstanding staff, and the COPS' Office interest, and leadership, in this remarkable event as it relates to law enforcement in our country’s history.”

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.