Seven months after one of its white officers fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department’s own findings of what transpired remain under wraps.
The criminal investigation of Officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown was handed off to the St. Louis County Police Department. But Ferguson police were still required to comply with internal procedures to immediately document and review the use of force.
“Early and accurate reporting helps agency credibility,” state the guidelines Chief Thomas Jackson signed in 2010.
Yet, in the Brown case, Yahoo News reported that the “use of force” report had not been completed as of at least seven weeks after his death. Now that it’s finished, Ferguson is declining to make it public.
Yahoo News requested the after-action report multiple times under the Missouri public records act. But City Attorney Stephanie Karr says the document is private under state law due to anticipated litigation and because it concerns the conduct or performance of personnel. A state grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November, and he resigned from the force a few days later.
It’s not the first time routine documents have been withheld or excessively redacted in the controversial case.
In Brown’s death, even a basic offense report — which is required by law — was never fully completed. Names and a description of the incident are missing. Ferguson police have not explained why the two-page document is mostly blank.
Law enforcement transparency was at the core of several recommendations presented to President Obama on Monday. The president’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing” was appointed after Brown's death.
The next big development in the Brown narrative is expected to come this week with the release of findings from a months-long Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson police. Excessive force and possible civil rights violations have been the focus of the probe.
Official findings have not been released, but according to at least two published reports, federal investigators uncovered broad patterns of racial bias in the 54-officer department, municipal court and jail.
A source tells the AP that the investigation found that officers disproportionately used excessive force against blacks and too often charged them with petty offenses.
Chief Jackson did not immediately reply to an email from Yahoo News on Tuesday.
From the department’s written directive:
“The Professional Standards Officer will conduct an annual review of all use of force incidents to identify trends, improve training and officer safety, and provide timely information for the Chief of Police to address use of force issues with the public.”
Yahoo News also requested all Ferguson police use of force reports and annual summaries since 2009, but has so far been denied access to those documents as well.
Many police departments across the country make use of force reports publicly available, but sometimes the decision to release the records can vary — even within in the same state. In November, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the July 2014 police shooting death of Christopher Maurice Jones in Pine Lawn, a town five miles from Ferguson. The story contained information from the Pine Lawn Police Department's use of force report, which the newspaper obtained through a request under the Sunshine Law.
Two months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder called for better reporting of use of force data nationwide to help heal mistrust between law enforcement and communities.
“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said in a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. “This strikes many — including me — as unacceptable. Fixing this is an idea that we should all be able to unite behind.”
Federal officials currently publish annual figures on the number of justifiable homicides by police and the number of officers killed or assaulted, but even that reporting is voluntary.
“Use of force data collection on a national level is absolutely pathetic,” Matthew Hickman, a criminal justice professor at Seattle University, told Yahoo News. “The worst part of it is the law actually requires it.”
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 instructs the Attorney General to collect data and publish an annual report on police use of force, but it has never happened. Holder said in January that police departments lack sufficient incentives to participate. The report presented to President Obama on Monday also faulted a lack of funding needed to fulfill the 1994 mandate.
The Brown shooting isn’t the only Ferguson case on which reports involving Wilson were difficult to obtain.
Six months before Brown’s death, Wilson was honored for wrestling and restraining a drug suspect who was resisting arrest. According to policy, a use of force report should have been submitted. Yahoo News requested the document and was eventually told it doesn’t exist.
“We need that information to ensure that policing in the U.S. really does reflect democratic ideals,” said Hickman, a former Department of Justice statistician and researcher of police behavior. “The key is information about police behavior. It's an important issue.”
Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).