Michael Brown shooting: How Ferguson botched crowd control of protests

The inability to quell the nightly violence that has engulfed the streets of Ferguson is a "great training tool" for officers on how not to manage a volatile protest, says one former police chief who is among a number of security experts slamming the police for their tactics.

'Aggressive policing tactics increase aggression on the part of the protesters,' expert says

Protesters continue to fill the streets every night, throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles, only to be met by tear gas and flash grenades from police. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden/Associated Press)

The inability to quell the nightly violence engulfing the streets of Ferguson is a "great training tool" for officers on how not to manage a volatile protest, says one former police chief who is among a number of security experts slamming the police for their tactics.

"It’s a terrible, terrible situation. So many things have been done wrong," said Charles Drago, a former police chief for Oviedo, Fla., a police instructor and career police officer who specializes in police practices and use of force. "Certainly not the typical standard of care for these types of activities." 

"It’s going to be a great training tool for police chiefs in the future. Unfortunately, it’s sad, it really is."

Protesters continue to fill the streets every night, throwing Molotov cocktails rocks and bottles, only to be met by tear gas and flash grenades from police.

The violent protests were sparked by the death of unarmed black Missouri teen Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer on Aug 9. The 18-year-old's death has brought to light the tense relations between Ferguson's black community and the local police department and has made it that much more difficult to resolve the crisis, law enforcement officials say.

"Obvious to everybody, there's absolutely no relationship between that community and the police department," Drago said. "So right from the get go, day one, there was no way for that community and the police department to resolve this or work through this peacefully."

With relations already frayed, police exacerbated the volatile situation with an overly aggressive response, confronting the protest crowds while garbed in military-like gear, brandishing automatic weapons and guard dogs, and setting the tone for future exchanges between the police and protesters, analysts say.

"What we've seen time and time again is that aggressive policing tactics increase aggression on the part of the protesters," said Tamara Madensen, director of the Crowd Management Research Council in the department of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

'It's mind-boggling to think they're even doing that'

"You saw Ferguson come out dressed in riot gear when no violence had actually occurred yet. We know that even potential police use of force, for example visible riot gear, armoured vehicles — these can instigate crowd members especially looking for a reason to engage in violence," she said.

"Here’s people peacefully demonstrating and they're watching them through the scopes of M-16s," said Drago. "It's mind-boggling to think that they're even doing that. The force that they used at the beginning is probably the most damaging."

Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle, who headed the force during the 1999 WTO riots, said the aggressive military tactics used for crowd control was a "huge mistake, one for which they continue to pay the price."

"The early image of snarling German Shepherds on a leash handled by a white police officer approaching black protesters – that’s a horrific image, particularly given our history here in the states," Stamper said.

Meanwhile, deploying tear gas against the crowds has been largely ineffective, Stamper said, and it has done nothing more than provoke protesters.

"It is not working, so why are you doing it? It’s also very provocative, inflames passions," he said. "When people recover from the teary eyes and snotty noses, they’re going to come right back, and that’s what’s been happening. They're coming back with battle wounds."

Retired Lieut.-General Russel Honore, who led Task Force Katrina to restore order in New Orleans following the devastating hurricane, said officers in Ferguson looked like they were responding to a hostage situation as opposed to dealing with a civil disturbance. 

Police stand guard on Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer has touched off violent protests in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where police have responded with riot gear and tear gas. (Christian Gooden/The Associated Press)

He questioned the overall strategy of the police, saying it looks like they've been making it up as they go along.

"Your strategy can't be: 'We're going to bring the tear gas out, then we're going to bring the stun guns out, then we're going to point machine guns. It's not working."

Law enforcement officials have also suffered from a lack of communication and co-ordination between departments, Drago said, with Missouri State Police and Ferguson police often delivering different messages.

Release of information has been problematic

"There's still no co-ordination in terms of what’s going on in the streets and the message that's being released," Drago said.

The release of information to the public has also been problematic, Drago said.

"They wouldn't release even basic information for the family and the community becomes more distrustful. And then you release bits and pieces that appear to be for the police's own purposes, that further creates more and more issues."

Many critics have praised the move to place Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black and from the Ferguson community, in charge of policing efforts, which did help defuse the situation temporarily.  But Drago said police went too far the other way in pulling back and didn't take the necessary force needed to stop the outside agitators who have hijacked the protests.

"They didn't recognize there was still a criminal element out there that was committing crimes and was going to stir things up and they need to be sure to address those issues quickly."

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      But Stamper, who has been critical of his own response to the 1999 riots in Seattle, said the true sign of failure of a police force's public safety mission is being forced to deploy the National Guard 

      "Having the National Guard on the streets of an American city when there's not a flood, not a fire, not a natural disaster, is once again evocative of an earlier time in our country and ugly chapters of our history," said Stamper, who brought in the National Guard to help defuse the Seattle riots. 

      "Its a very clear sign that you’ve lost it."

      With files from The Associated Press


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