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Justice Department's Ferguson report gets its own criticism and praise

Protesters are greeted by a wall of police officers after a march to the Ferguson Police department on August 11, 2014.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI

A report from the Department of Justice on how police responded to protests in Ferguson following the shooting death of Michael Brown last summer has drawn praise and criticism from individuals who were involved in the protests on all sides.

The 188-page document released on Wednesday was at times blistering in its criticism of the way the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Ferguson, St. Louis Metropolitan and St. Louis County police departments acted when dealing with the protesters. The report's authors found that inconsistent leadership led to officers using ineffective policing strategies and tactics that often inflamed tensions between the police and the community -- a situation exacerbated by a lack of true connections between the law enforcement and the community.


A lack of clarity about who was in charge generated a huge amount of chaos, said Rick Braziel, the retired chief of the Sacramento Police Department and one of the authors of the report. "There was never really control of the chaos because of the lack of coordination." 

Part of the problem, the report said, was the incident commander, Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, was pulled in too many directions and was unable to devote his time to managing the scene.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who appointed Johnson to the command role, defended his decision, calling it easy to criticize after the fact.

"I thought with his experience that he was the right person to be on the front of that, and I think he did a wonderful job out there in the community in a very difficult situation, putting himself on the front lines personally each and every day," Nixon said.

That "chaos" noted by Braziel included the improper use of police canines for crowd control, tactics such as "overwatch," where snipers took positions atop armored vehicles and used their gun sites to watch the crowd, and a failure to track less-lethal weapons such as stinger balls and tear gas. The report also criticized the way tear gas was deployed, saying it was used without regard for nearby residential areas and without proper warning.

Tony Rice, a frequent protestor in Ferguson, said reading the report was like reading a movie or a script. He said he'd seen many of its findings in person -- most vividly, the tear gas.

"You actually breathe it through your nose," he said. "And if you were close enough, it would get into your eyes. And then the heavy coughing and the inability to breathe would set in. People would start touching their face and other body parts, and then a little burning would set in. And then things would start getting progressively worse."

Assigning blame

Responsibility for the failures in leadership is shared by law enforcement and political leaders, said Ronald Davis, the director of the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Strategies. 

"On the other hand, I think we should applaud them for asking for the report and making the changes," he said. "The fact that they are making changes is a strong way of accepting it." He pointed to the changes in the way the police responded to protests in November 2014, after former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not charged with a crime in Brown's death.

In statements, the state patrol and the Ferguson, county and city police departments all said they welcomed the review and had already made some of changes the report recommended.

The report should still give law enforcement agencies pause, no matter how much they have already changed, said Dan Isom, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a former chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and a member of the Ferguson Commission. 

Missouri Department of Public Safety Dan Isom
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Dan Isom

Among the recommendations put forth by the commission is one  detailing "a systemic approach to evaluating what you have early on."

“I think the first steps in the issue of a peaceful protest ought to be police having a very soft presence,” Isom said. "Plain clothes. Identifying what’s going on. Identifying the leaders in the group. And starting to come to some kind of resolution or accepted way forward.

"The first thing is evaluating and recognizing that you may not need a significant police presence if there is a peaceful protest going on,” he added. “And then from there, if there is the need to have a significant uniformed presence, then there continues to be a dialogue about how that’s presented."

Isom's counterpart in the county, former police chief Tim Fitch, was much less charitable in his description of the report.

"The [Department of Justice] immediately took sides in this -- and it was absolutely an anti-police side," he said. "I think what they did is they hired particular individuals in this report to continue that narrative."

The Department of Justice was completely correct about the disjointed leadership, Fitch said, but the region didn't need a report to know that.

"Every major event we’ve had in St. Louis County we’ve had those issues. These are issues that have to be resolved politically, and there’s never been anyone to take the political leadership to resolve these issues.”

The DOJ said the firm that wrote the report was selected long before the Ferguson protests erupted.

Maria Altman contributed to this report.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.