DOJ: Ferguson, Mo., Police Mishandled Aftermath Of Michael Brown's Death
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The latest Justice Department report on the events in Ferguson, Mo., is a critique of how law enforcement handled protests there. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum says that it generally paints the response as both disorganized and overbearing.
JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: After looking through the Department of Justice's report on how police responded to the mass protests in Ferguson, resident Tony Rice thought he was reading through a book or a movie script. But as he stood in front of the Ferguson Police Department on Thursday, Rice knew that what was detailed in the 188-page document was all too real. He saw many of the report's findings with his own eyes - the use of dogs for crowd control, the hulking armored vehicles and, most vividly, the tear gas.
TONY RICE: You actually breathe it through your nose, and if you were close enough, it would get into your eyes and then the heavy coughing and inability to breathe would set in. People would start touching their face and other body parts, and then a little burning would start and, you know, things would just progressively get worse.
ROSENBAUM: The DOJ's report looked at how four law enforcement agencies responded to mass protests a year ago. It found that police deployed tear gas without warning, brought out equipment that made aggressive crowds angrier and didn't communicate well, either with protesters or with each other.
Rick Braziel is a former Sacramento police chief who worked on the report. He says the key agencies in charge of controlling the protests didn't have cohesive leadership, and that soon made a bad situation even worse.
RICK BRAZIEL: There was never really control of the chaos because of the lack of coordination and then the lack of consistency in leadership.
ROSENBAUM: It's fair to say that policymakers around St. Louis have been taking stock of what happened last August long before the DOJ's most recent report came out. Governor Jay Nixon set up a a group called the Ferguson Commission to come up with policy proposals in response to the unrest, including how to handle demonstrations more effectively. Ferguson Commission member Dan Isom says the Justice Department's report should give pause to law enforcement agencies. When the Ferguson Commission's report is released later this month, it will include recommendations to make officers train for handling protests in a more cohesive and coordinated way.
DAN ISOM: I think the first steps in an issue of a peaceful protest ought to be police having a very soft presence - plain clothes, identifying what's going on, identifying the leaders in the group and starting to come to some kind of, you know, resolution.
ROSENBAUM: But former St. Louis County police Chief Tim Fitch is critical of the Justice Department report. While he says it's true that the police response was often disjointed and disorganized, he finds critiques of equipment and tactics off-base. He considers the report slanted, saying officers faced imminent danger.
TIM FITCH: So it was pretty obvious - if you're talking about taking sides - they immediately took a side in this, and it was absolutely an anti-police side, and I think what they did is they hired individuals in this particular case for this report to continue that narrative. So there's no surprise there.
ROSENBAUM: Then there's political pushback. State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal sponsored numerous bills this year influenced by the response to the protests, including restricting when tear gas can be deployed. None of her proposals passed, and she's worried that her colleagues on both sides of the aisle don't get the urgency.
MARIA CHAPPELLE-NADAL: We are only going to be a sustainable state when we listen and adopt a policy that covers the individuals who have the smallest voices within our communities.
ROSENBAUM: For their part, some agencies that were criticized in the report - including the St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol - note they've made significant operational changes since last year's protests. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.