The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri has led to angry protests and violent clashes with police that reached a fresh crescendo earlier this week. A second, unrelated fatal police shooting of a young black man just a few miles east on Tuesday, however, sparked protests, but no violence.
Why did events spiral out of control in Ferguson? Why did this little-known St. Louis suburb, with just 21,000 people, explode into more than a week of unrest? Part of the problem seems to have been a series of missteps by local authorities.
Experts from around the nation, including law enforcement officials, academics and civil rights attorneys, cite four factors: A poisoned relationship between a virtually all-white police force and a majority black city; heavy-handed police tactics both before and after the shooting -- including a military-style response to the initial protests; and mixed messages from local authorities, some of whom attempted to focus attention on an alleged robbery by the dead teen, Michael Brown, instead of updating the public about the investigation into Brown’s death.
“Put that all together and you have a ready-made disaster,” L.A.-based civil rights attorney Connie Rice told NBC News.
The Police vs. the Public: Rice and others said most of the problems in Ferguson flowed from the almost non-existent connection between the city’s police and its residents. Detective Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, which represents many of the area’s officers, told NBC News he thought there had been early friction in Ferguson between police and protesters because there had been “no established lines of communication with community leaders.”
While two-thirds of Ferguson’s citizens are African-American, there are only three blacks on its 53-member police force. Where larger urban departments like the NYPD have used so-called “community-based policing” in recent years to build trust with a diverse public, Ferguson focused on old-fashioned top-down policing and revenue generation. That meant most contact with civilians involved traffic stops and writing tickets – an extraordinary number of tickets for traffic and other offenses. Jeff Smith, an assistant professor of politics at the New School in New York City and a former resident and legislator in St. Louis County, described Ferguson as “a constant, simmering state of tension and mistrust.” Smith said community policing could have reduced tensions, but that “it’s like (Ferguson) missed the whole phenomenon.”
Treating Citizens Like ATMs: Ferguson police were particularly aggressive in stopping citizens to enforce low-level ordinances. Court data shows the city filed more than 12,300 cases for non-traffic offenses ranging from public urination and loitering to some forms of assault. That's more than any other city in St. Louis County, which rings the city of St. Louis, and about five times the number filed in Chesterfield, a nearby majority white city with more than double Ferguson's population. Local defense lawyers say many of their clients feel that police in Ferguson and some neighboring cities are more focused on issuing violations -- and making money -- than public safety.
"Whether or not it’s true, our clients believe they are being pulled over because they are black,” said Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a legal services group that represents low-income people in St. Louis County and put out a report on alleged problems in the county’s municipal courts. "My clients say that the police officer and the judge and the prosecutor are not on their side, and they are just viewed as a source of revenue.”
But the ticket blitz has proven lucrative for Ferguson. Between 2010 and 2013, according to city records, Ferguson increased its revenue from fines by more than 40 percent. Court fees from traffic and low-level offenses could top $2.6 million for 2014.
An Occupying Army: Tactical officers first showed up in Ferguson on Aug. 11, two days after the Brown shooting, to safeguard and clear protesters away from the Ferguson police headquarters. But SWAT officers from the St. Louis County Police, wearing combat fatigues and equipped with tear gas and high-powered rifles, were out in force on Aug. 13 when they confronted a predominately peaceful crowd with armored vehicles and SWAT members. One much discussed image showed an officer training a high-powered rifle on a crowd of peaceful protesters. Police were also criticized for heavy-handed tactics after two reporters and a St. Louis alderman were arrested. Police officials argued they showed restraint and fired rubber bullets, tear gas and flash-bang grenades when some in the crowd threw objects, including Molotov cocktails, at them. Crocker, the police association president, said officers had “consistently adjusted” their tactics. “We typically work off of the barometer of the crowd,” said Crocker.
Former LAPD SWAT officer Scott Reitz, who served on the force during the 1992 L.A. riots and trains police departments on tactics, said the military-style response was a mistake. “When there’s no riot and no shots fired, it’s going to be perceived as an overreaction to the existing problem,” Reitz said. “Generally, you would keep SWAT in abeyance where they can respond rapidly if the situation dictates.”
Concerns over tactics led St. Louis Metro Police Chief Sam Dotson to pull his officers out of Ferguson after they had assisted for several nights. Dotson said he did not agree with County Police Chief Jon Belmar’s tactics. “This is going to drive a further wedge, without question,” Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I have two responsibilities: to protect our community and to keep it safe and to protect my officers. After two nights of not making any progress in Ferguson I was concerned about both of them.”
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper was more pointed. “It's like someone handed them a script about how not to do things,” Stamper told the L.A. Times last week. Stamper had been criticized for his own department response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.
“Don’t tear gas nonviolent and non-threatening protesters,” said Stamper. “And for God’s sake, don’t bring dogs out. … It’s a throwback to the ‘60s and Bull Connor. The imagery sucks. It was really painful to see the images I saw from Ferguson.”
Changing the Subject: Two related moves last week appeared to defuse tensions. Missouri State Police took over command of the scene from the local cops, and designated Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American who grew up near Ferguson, as the on-site commander and liaison with the community.
But then Ferguson Police Department Chief Thomas Jackson held a press conference and released documents and surveillance video -- over Justice Department objections -- allegedly showing that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store a short time before he was fatally shot. Hours later, Jackson held another press conference to announce that the white officer accused of shooting Brown was unaware of Brown’s alleged involvement in the robbery when he shot him.
Eric Rose, a crisis management expert who advises police organizations across the country, called Jackson’s revelations “foolish,” saying they served “to further incite tensions.”
“The goal should have been to calm things down,” said Rose. “Releasing that information did not serve that purpose.” In high-profile cases, he said, “You never want to go public without truly knowing all the facts and you want to have a clear strategy. In this case, the stakes of being wrong could have meant riots. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Ferguson Vows to Change: On Tuesday, Ferguson city leaders announced steps they hoped would lead to reconciliation and improve race relations. Although they cautioned it would take time, officials pledged to recruit more black officers to their police academy and give incentives to those on the force who choose to live in the community. They also said they would seek to raise money for cameras that would be placed on officers’ lapels and in their squad cars.
Those statements, coupled with allowances for protesters, appeared to lessen the tension and violence Tuesday night. The Police Association’s Crocker said communication between the public and the police had improved, which had proved a “huge help” in preventing widespread violence on Tuesday. He described the protestors as “calm and cooperative.” On Wednesday, Capt. Johnson told reporters he believed “community policing needed to grow” in Ferguson.
But Jon Shane, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that change, and preparing for extraordinary circumstances like mass protests, are easier said than done in the nation’s 14,000 or so smaller police departments. Personnel and resources in cities like Ferguson are limited.
“So few police departments encounter these conditions that, when they do happen, they don’t know how to handle it and they have not experienced it,” he said.
In Ferguson, Connie Rice is seeing echoes of the LAPD’s failures more than 20 years ago during the riots that followed the acquittal of four white officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King.
“Now these officers (in Ferguson) have lost all validity and all ability to persuade this population to comply with the law or with their commands,” she said. “And once you reach that point of no return, you have to take drastic action. You have to start over, and fast.”
Neither the Ferguson police nor the St. Louis County Police Department immediately responded to request for comment.