WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES – Ignoring lessons of past civil disturbances such as the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, police inflamed tensions that have fueled more than a week of unrest in a St. Louis suburb where an officer shot to death an unarmed black teenager.
The challenges are as basic as the overwhelmingly white composition of the police department in predominately black Ferguson, Missouri, and a decision to quickly embrace aggressive tactics, current and former police officials said.
While officials interviewed agreed that local authorities were acting in a manner they thought best in a difficult situation, inexperience, a chasm in the relationship between officers and the community, and a disregard of lessons learned by larger police agencies have made it harder to quell the strife, they said.
“You have to know your community,” said Bert F. Shirey, who in 38 years with the Baltimore police rose to deputy commissioner, second-highest on the force, retiring in 2002. “You have to have real contacts in the community, and you always have to be careful to walk a fine line not to overreact. Sometimes a big show of force in the beginning may not be the proper way to deal with it.”
Protesters in Ferguson have hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails in repeated clashes with police since Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go!”
Early Sunday, in scenes that recalled the civil rights movement of the 1960s, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a crowd of about 200 that refused to obey a midnight curfew set by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was asked by Nixon to oversee the police response, said the use of tear gas was appropriate because there were several armed people at a local restaurant, and one person had been shot. Local authorities are referring reporter inquiries to the highway patrol.
The lessons learned by many big-city departments after episodes of urban unrest appear to have been lost on Ferguson police, said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Police Department, criticized for its response to the 1992 riots after a jury acquitted officers in the videotaped beating of King, a black motorist, improved relations with nonwhite communities under a consent decree with the Justice Department, he said. Ferguson police should have realized that a militaristic approach could backfire, Armour said.
“The armaments, the weaponry, the tone that was set with the citizens when you come in with a shock-and-awe approach to policing — when you’re surrounded by military armaments, the credo is more like command and control than serve and protect,” Armour said. “Experience matters. It taught the LAPD and a lot of other departments that it may be best to avoid those kinds of confrontations with citizenry rather than fan the flames.”
The Missouri confrontations have fueled questions about whether local police are over-equipped with military equipment and under-trained to deal with civil unrest. The conflict exposed a gap between a community that is 67 percent black and a police force of 53 with three black officers.
“You are way behind the eight ball when you don’t reflect the community,” said Kevin Davis, formerly a top police official in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where the racial majority is black.
Davis, now police chief of Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, said law enforcement officials in Ferguson should have immediately joined with community leaders at press conferences urging calm. When developments got out of hand, police should have responded with officers in their usual uniforms, not military-style equipment. A forum would have allowed the public to vent its anger.
Ferguson and St. Louis County, which also responded to protests, “went from zero to 60 in 1.2 seconds,” Davis said. “Once you roll that stuff out, you are in a fight. It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”
Local police missteps may stem from lack of experience with such disturbances, said Peter Newsham, an assistant police chief in Washington, D.C., where he said his department regularly faces protests and has learned from mistakes.
“Suiting up in riot gear and tossing tear gas is probably the worst way to deal with civil unrest,” Newsham said. “You have to understand what kind of point the protesters want to make and allow them to be in public space. And you make it as safe as possible.”
He added, “There is a fear sometimes when you have large crowds, especially large crowds of people expressing anger over an issue, and traditionally law enforcement tries to suppress that to make it go away. That approach doesn’t work. We have learned that the hard way.”