Law enforcement needs to respect the right of citizens to assemble in peaceful protest—and keep its military hardware out of sight, says a former director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
James Stewart, who now directs public safety research for CNA Corporation, an Arlington, VA-based nonprofit security research firm that advises military and government agencies, says these are the critical lessons to be drawn from the community-police confrontation in Ferguson, MO, which erupted last week following the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
In an extended telephone interview with The Crime Report's Deputy Managing Editor Graham Kates, Stewart contended that the escalation of violence—which triggered the imposition of a curfew in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, this weekend by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, could have been prevented if police had avoided the kind of crowd-suppression tools usually associated with anti-terrorism—and were willing to be more transparent.
Stewart, a former Oakland, CA Chief of Detectives, recently led a CNA review of the 2013 death of Tyrone West in Baltimore, MD. Though officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing in West's death, the report — which was commissioned by the city's police department and was released on August 8 — took the department to task for not releasing information about its investigation, which in turn helped stoke “conspiracy theories” that exacerbated the situation.
According to Stewart, the Ferguson police might have done well to heed the lessons of his Baltimore report.
The Crime Report: What can smaller, local police forces learn from what happened in Ferguson?
James Stewart: In Ferguson, as in many cities, there is a delay in getting information out by the police department. Now, I realize and respect that you need to get the information right, but what happens in many cities is that there is basically a statement to the press that somebody was killed and there’s going to be an investigation, and then typically the response is, “We cannot comment because there’s an ongoing investigation.” Or, “We’re waiting for the district attorney or the grand jury to make a decision, and so we have to withhold comment.”
This lack of information allows a counter-narrative to develop. People in the community begin to say, “Wait a minute, I think there’s a cover-up going on.”
Communities want to have full transparency on police use of authority, on discretion and use of force, and they want to know whether these officers are being held accountable if they step over the line; that there’s going to be an objective investigation.
TCR: Is that a reasonable request? Is that something that can be done as standard protocol?
JS: Yes, you find that leading departments have moved in that direction. The Las Vegas Police Department, Denver, (and) a number of other police departments have been fairly quick about getting information out. If it’s a controversial incident, they usually have the head of the agency make a statement about 72 hours later, on what is known up to that point.
Several departments have had difficulty convincing the community that their internal investigations are objective and independent. And so what some departments have done, and the Los Angeles Police Department is an example, is contract with independent outside firms to do this kind of investigation—usually composed of either lawyers or analysts or former law enforcement people—and that report is usually made available to the community.
(But) small-town agencies typically haven’t done anything in terms of contracting out for this kind of service; or they just look to have the county police do it, and the community sees them all as sort of one group in a conspiracy. They don’t see it as being independent.
TCR: You mentioned major cities where they’ve taken these steps. Are they anomalies?
JS: The (major cities) are the leaders in change because many of them have had either civil rights investigations, or they have had complaints that have required some reforms to be made. In larger cities, you have much more organized community groups that are able to come in and organize very effective ways to get the police department to begin to realize they’ve got to release the information, and they cannot hold you off for nine months or 18 months while they get the story right.
Because anytime that you file a wrongful death suit, or you file a motion to discover for the officers personnel records, everything is discoverable, anyway. So not releasing this stuff only contributes to the idea that this is a conspiracy, the conspiracy of silence.
TCR: In the Ferguson case, there was also an overwhelming response to protestors by the local police and the St. Louis County Police Department.
JS: Absolutely. And I don’t think this has been thought about very much. But since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, there has been lots of emphasis on training police as a first line of defense against terrorist attacks and (drug cartels), so they have increased their capacity to handle heavy weapons and to protect against automatic weapon fire. (But) we have not trained them in (handling) public demonstrations. Constitutionally there’s a right to a demonstration, a right to be heard. There’s not a right to loot and there’s not a right to burn anything, there’s not a right to hurt the police. But there is a right to petition your government that’s protected by the Constitution.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has done some very good work in documenting what happened in Tampa and Charlotte, when they had the presidential nominating conventions, and they had to bring in thousands of extra officers and train them. They engaged in very effective crowd control and were able to have officers out in front. They had the chief and the top people mainly with the crowd, meeting with the demonstrators, talking to them, so that the demonstrators felt like it was not an adversarial situation.
They did have people in full riot gear, with what they call 'turtle armor' two blocks away and out of view. In (Ferguson), you had people looking down a machine gun at the citizens of the city they’re supposed to protect. It didn’t calm the place down.
TCR: Is there a standard of training for police officers who use this kind of anti-terror equipment?
JS: There is some curriculum out there, but the curriculum is not for civil demonstrations. It's all about terrorist attacks, or barricaded suspects, or trying to defend against an armed ambush. Yet local, small agencies across the country — we’ve seen this for the last 10 years — even if they only have 10 officers or five officers, all insist on developing SWAT team capability.
The question is, does that make sense? Should every agency have a SWAT team that’s fully armed, even though it’s very rarely used? Or do you need to have a SWAT team that is regionally based, that can deploy within say, 25 or 30 minutes to a location to provide that kind of assistance?
TCR: It sounds like we’re kind of lucky that there haven’t been more confrontations like this in small communities.
JS: (Many) small communities have applied for federal technology and equipment, and they have gotten them. The question is, how do you best use them? And because you only have five officers or 10 officers, or I think it’s 57 in Ferguson, the challenge is, how do you get training time to bring these guys in? In a large city you can schedule the training and still maintain coverage on the street, but when you have very few people on the street, you cannot just take them off and train them [for a whole variety] of things. So that’s why the more forward-thinking departments are thinking about ways to consolidate these kinds of rarely used, but high-consequence (technology) as a regional function that can be deployed and shared.
Essentially these guys are on their own, they’ve got this dramatic equipment, and they sort of say, “Here are the keys.” And then when they have something like this, they have everything rolling out on display and they do this equivalent of “shock and awe”— thinking it’ll somehow cause the population to absolutely give up and accept whatever the police require. And it turns out (that people in Ferguson) were saying, “No, this is our police department, this is our town, and we have a right to express how we want to be policed.”
TCR: Were there lessons from your Baltimore report that can be used to inform Missouri as it begins to examine this case and the way this case was handled?
JS: We don’t know all the facts in the Ferguson case at this point, but we do know that in the Baltimore circumstance, it started off with a traffic stop that escalated into spotting some narcotics in the driver’s socks after he was out on the curb. And a large fight ensued, but part of the reason the fight happened is that the officers themselves did not follow the best training practices. They didn’t radio and ask for backup; they were in plain clothes, they decided to handle this themselves rather than maintain the distance and cover required by their training, one of the officers left the cover position and began looking in a car to see if there was any evidence of any contraband inside the car.
This developed into a struggle that lasted for about five minutes in extremely warm and humid weather. And when (uniformed reinforcements) finally arrived, the suspect, who was a very well-muscled, very strong, very fit individual, was finally handcuffed and placed on the ground, held there and continued to kick. He all of a sudden, as a supervisor arrived on the scene, stopped breathing. (The family) asked the police department what happened and the police department said, “He just died.”
And the family said, “Wait a minute. This guy was in amazing shape. He did two hours of calisthenics every day. He couldn’t have died; you must’ve beat him to death.”
The difficulty is … it took six months to get that information out. In the meantime, there was no communication with the family, the police department kept saying, “It’s still under investigation. We can’t comment.” And because of all of this, a counter-narrative began to develop: “Ah, the officers that did this were involved in another case just like this. Happened a year ago with a ruptured a guy's spleen and broke his bones, and therefore these are the same officers, and there’s no accountability, and we’ve got to do something.”
So it really did cause, in the community, this sense of distrust and outrage.
And when the information finally came out, it said he had no broken bones, no vital organs or areas were damaged. His nose wasn’t broken. He didn’t have any chipped teeth, He didn’t have any split lips. There was no evidence of a beating.
But that information was not released until everybody had already had their minds made up.
In the Ferguson case, the community was saying, “We want to know what happened. We want to know the officer’s name.” And the department said, “We’re not going to release the officer’s name because there have been death threats.” The community heard that as (a police effort) to cook up a new story and protect themselves.
People in Ferguson, over the years, are complaining that, “We never hear what happens to the police, we never hear about anything; all we know is we’re ending up being arrested, going to the hospital, and we want to know why that’s the case.”
[So the lessons for similar confrontations elsewhere are to ask questions first about the level of force required in an incident.] Is it reasonable? Is it legal? And is it proper? Does it follow the kinds of standards that police agencies, professional police agencies, maintain? And (do the standards) say that the amount of force has to be objectively reasonable?
TCR: I’m a police reporter, and to me the concept of local police departments being more forthright when it comes to officer-involved deaths seems almost far-fetched. Could this be a tipping point for local police departments to start becoming more transparent about how they handle these cases?
JS: Well I think what’s happening is the courts are saying, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t hold this information back.” (When similar officer-involved shootings occur) in Las Vegas, the district attorney issues a detailed letter explaining why the police (are or are not) being charged. And a homicide report is attached. Many police departments don’t do that, but it’s becoming a best practice.
Las Vegas is currently experimenting whether body cameras can be effective at both documenting and calming situations. That could be a breakthrough. It begins to move away from the lack of credibility that the community ascribes to the police, particularly when they’re involved in their own internal investigations.
The lack of trust in the police department when it comes to their own use of force, and in their ability to investigate and hold accountable their officers is not just isolated to Ferguson. It’s really happening all over the United States, and that’s also the reason they’re moving to the cameras. In many agencies, the unions are enthusiastic about the cameras because they feel that it will exonerate officers.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.