4 Lessons From the DOJ Report on Ferguson

September 4th 2015

Thor Benson

About one year after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in a pivotal moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, the nation is still coming to terms with police violence. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Thursday released a 185-page report looking at how Ferguson police handled protests in the wake of Brown's death, and there are some lessons in the report that could apply to police forces nationwide.

1. The police are overly militarized.

Sharpshooter Ferguson, Missouri

"The use of military weapons and sniper deployment atop military vehicles was inappropriate, inflamed tensions, and created fear among demonstrators," the report states.

As ATTN: has reported before, police departments and even college campuses across the country have taken advantage of low-priced military surplus gear that the federal government has made available. This gear has included everything from armored trucks to sonic weapons to grenade launchers, but the Obama administration has promised to ban some of the more controversial weaponry. Many see the police use of military gear as an extreme tactic and worry how the gear might be used to harm citizens.

Many have called for the demilitarization of police. The DOJ's report on Ferguson explains the use of military gear by police forces should be reserved for cases of extreme unrest and should not be presented during peaceful protests; the report specifically says the presence of armored vehicles elevates tensions. It also recommended against using police snipers atop the armored vehicles to scan through the crowd with their weapon's scope and says using armored vehicles to make announcements is not recommended.

2. Be much more careful with dogs and tear gas.

Ferguson, Missouri tear gas

"The use of canines for crowd control in Ferguson was an inappropriate and ineffective strategy," the report states.

"There were instances where CS gas (tear gas) was deployed inappropriately, including without proper warnings, without sufficient attention paid to safe egress, without consideration for environmental conditions, and without documentation that justified and tracked its use," the report also states.

Both police dogs and tear gas are addressed in a section called "Use of Force," and it explains how certain uses of force may sometimes be appropriate for police forces but that these tactics were used incorrectly or egregiously in Ferguson. The section specifically focuses on how use of force was used for crowd control.

The report found many black Ferguson community members were offended by how the police used dogs to control crowds, and it illustrates how this reaction could be related to the fact dogs were used during the Civil Rights Movement and before to attack black Americans who were trying to express themselves. The report states using dogs for crowd control is not a proper practice.

As for tear gas, the report states there were limited records of how tear gas was used and media coverage served as the best indicator. Police policy required people be asked to disperse before tear gas is used to clear an area, but some reports indicate that may not have happened in many cases. Tear gas is said to have blown into residential areas during the protests. The report recommends the police force show more discretion with the use of tear gas.

3. Police did not communicate well and lacked proper leadership.

Ferguson, Missouri police response

"There was a lack of effective communication and information management," the reports states. "Communication gaps led to tactical and strategic uncertainty within law enforcement agencies, between law enforcement agencies, and with the community."

The report points out that during protests and in the aftermath of the protests, there was a systemic inability to communicate a consistent message. Over 50 police departments responded to the protests, and these departments were not adequately informed to be able to instigate consistent practices for controlling crowds, arresting law breakers and informing the media of new developments.

The overall lack of unity speaks to many of the issues raised in the report, and it shows that police departments may have been overly eager to control the situation without taking into account the ramifications of their tactics. The report indicates a lighter touch from the police may have been necessary so some of the minor conflicts could work themselves out naturally.

4. Officers need to be identifiable.

"The public has a right to expect accountability during an encounter with law enforcement, and accountability includes having a means for citizens to identify officers (e.g., nameplates and badge numbers)," the report states.

The report shows some officers were removing their nameplates and badges, which would make it difficult to hold an officer accountable if there is a case of perceived misconduct. The report states that there were likely many situations where a citizen would have filed a complaint against an officer but were unable to due to them not having a nameplate or badge number to take down.

Overall, the report's unifying message is that police need to work with their communities and respect the rights of citizens who wish to peacefully protest. It also highlights how the world has changed with the advent of social media and other technological tools that can affect how a demonstration plays out and how the outside world sees it. A group called the Ferguson Commission was set up to review Ferguson's police and court policies last year, and they are expected to release a report later this month that will include how to handle protests properly.