Minneapolis violence shows police learned few lessons from Ferguson riots, experts say

The fires, violence and looting sparked by video of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee on the neck of an unarmed black man who later died reveals that law enforcement has learned little since the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, experts say.

Fired Minneapolis police officer charged with 3rd-degree murder in George Floyd's death

Minnesota state troopers provide protection as firefighters battle a fire Friday after a night of unrest and protests in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

The fires, violence and looting sparked by video of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee on the neck of an unarmed black man who later died show that law enforcement has learned little since the riots in Ferguson, Mo., experts say.

"It's just like Ferguson didn't happen; because we failed to learn the lessons that came out of understanding the root cause of mass protests in this country and how to handle mass protests in this country," said Roy E. Alston, a former member of the Dallas Police Department in Texas.

Alston was part of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) assessment team that wrote a 188-page report into the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo. Those riots followed the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.

The report found a number of problems in the police response, including inconsistent leadership, failure to understand endemic problems in the community, withholding information that should have been made public and reliance on military-style equipment.

'Police are handling very poorly'

"Here we find ourselves in 2020 with mass protests in Minneapolis based on an event that the police are handling very poorly," Alston said.

There is a complete void in trust between the police and communities of colour, the former officer added.

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Charles Drago, a former police chief for Oviedo, Fla., is a police instructor and career police officer who specializes in police practices and use of force. He agreed that the lessons of Ferguson have been lost.

"Have we not learned anything from Ferguson? My answer is we have not," Drago said. "We have very short memories, unfortunately. And in policing, I guess we've been famous for that."

The streets of Minneapolis have been the scene of arson, looting and vandalism since the death of George Floyd, who had been arrested by police on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. 

Floyd was on the ground face down and handcuffed while one officer held his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, according to a criminal complaint. At one point, Floyd stopped breathing.

On Friday, Derek Chauvin, 44, who has been fired from the force, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case.

That same day, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged the "abject failure" of the response to the protests.

Protesters continue to fill the streets, with some throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles. Police have used tear gas and flash grenades on demonstrators. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden/Associated Press)

Alston suggested the Minneapolis police force has done a poor job in communicating to the public about the arrest and death of Floyd.

"We learned in Ferguson, Missouri, communication was the most important. When an incident happened, the foremost authority on that incident must be the police. They must speak to the incident and be transparent in what they know and what they deliver," he said.

"They must allow people to respond in a manner in which people feel respected and that their voices are being heard."

Alston said while Minneapolis police don't look militarized, they appear to be ready to respond in a manner that will actually incite more anger.

"So you show up heavily armed, heavily positioned against the protesters. That literally excites protest."

Reach out to community

Alston said police officials need to reach out to community, business, religious leaders and protest organizers, get them all in a room, and come up with a strategy to suppress the violence.

"The police can't do that. They can't show up in all of their police glory and tell people 'Enough is enough.' You can't do that. They have to work through their intermediaries."

"And within a very short period of time if it's done very effectively, this will become very quiet."

Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice professor David Carter was a leader of that Ferguson assessment in 2014. He said it is important to keep in mind that demonstrators are often angry at the institution of policing, not individual officers.

However, police need to be hyper-cognizant of appearances, he said.

"Officers standing shoulder to shoulder with riot gear and stern looks will be extensively shared in social media and will continue to enrage the community with false narratives," he said in an email to CBC News. "In Ferguson this was like a wildfire that couldn't be put out."

To avoid such violent flare ups, Drago stressed that police departments need to have a rapport and a relationship with their community before the incident happens.

"We see what happens when there's no relationship. We've seen it over and over again across the country."

This 2019 photo shows George Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis, where he worked in security. Floyd died in police custody, on Monday, May 25, 2020, after an officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis. (HenrySocialPhotos via AP)

"And if that community doesn't trust the city, the municipality, the police department, this is what happens," he said. "It's not just protests. It's not just people speaking out. It's just out of control because there's so much frustration."

To help quell the anger, police need to be absolutely transparent on every aspect of the Floyd investigation, he said. 

"And that may mean every day, two times a day, alerting the press as to what's happening or where they're going, what occurred, what they know occurred, what video they may have, whatever it is."

Drago said he didn't know enough of the details to comment on the overall policing ground strategy in Minneapolis. But he did criticize the tactics of some of their arrest teams.

"[They] are chasing people down alleys, over several streets. And I don't know why they're doing that, because that's not a proper tactic. If they flee from you and they're running, you let them go. You don't just keep chasing them and throw tear-gas grenades at them."

"They need to focus on what's important, that is protecting people's lives. And then second, protecting property and taking up positions in those places."

WATCH | Protesters set police station on fire:

Minneapolis police driven from 3rd Precinct as protesters set station on fire

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The city endured a third night of protests and violence after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody. 0:49

David Couper, the former chief of police in Madison, Wisc., and a proponent of de-escalation strategies which became known as the Madison Method, said Minneapolis officials could take lessons from at least one of the officers involved in policing the Ferguson riots. Lt. Jerry Lohr of the St. Louis County Police was heralded by some for his non-confrontational approach.

" He would stand out in front of the Ferguson station and just talk to people," Couper said.

Couper, who is now a priest, said it was also important for the Minneapolis police chief to have apologized for the incident, over and over again.

"That's never been a practice of policing. You've got to be able to apologize. You're going to make mistakes out there. You've got to be able to say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'"


Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press