Justice Department prods Ferguson police to improve

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Attorney General Eric Holder greets Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Click photo for slideshow of protests in Ferguson

A small corner of the Justice Department led by a gregarious former police chief has spent months prodding local police in St. Louis and Ferguson, Mo., to change the way they view their citizens and to respond to protests with the intention of upholding people’s First Amendment rights, not shutting them down. 

The effort is just one prong of an unusually involved response from the Justice Department to the Aug. 9 police shooting of an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown, which sparked weeks of occasionally violent protests in the area. A county grand jury is expected to decide any day now whether to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in Brown’s death, and initial leaks from the proceedings suggest Wilson may not be charged.

Protesters have vowed to shut down the town of Clayton, where the grand jury meets, when the decision is announced, and local and federal officials are bracing for the possibility of violence.

Ronald Davis, a former Oakland and East Palo Alto, Calif., cop who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), has been working constantly with police in the area to ensure that any new protests do not resemble the warlike scenes from August and to repair the majority-white police department’s broken relationship with the majority-black citizens it serves. In August, police in military-style outfits rode around in armored, tanklike vehicles, and were seen training assault weapons at unarmed protesters, sparking a national debate about militarized policing tactics.

Davis has visited Ferguson four times to meet with police leaders, and sent dozens of his staffers over the months to help out on the ground. Other areas of the Justice Department have also been unusually involved in the case — demanding an independent autopsy of Brown’s body, launching a civil rights investigation into the local police department and dispatching dozens of FBI agents to the scene. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. visited the town soon after the protests erupted, and recently called for “wholesale change” in the Ferguson Police Department.

Office of Community Oriented Policing Services Director Ronald Davis participates in a news conference at the Justice Department headquarters September 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Click photo for slideshow of protests in Ferguson

Total change, however, has been elusive. Ferguson’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, has resisted pressure to resign. But Davis’ office has provided local police with advice, training and even staff to help change the attitudes and response of police in the area. Davis has shipped in police chiefs from other cities to advise Ferguson’s law enforcement, launched an investigation led by a team of experts into the police response to the first two weeks of protests, and sent retired Kansas City, Mo., Police Chief Darrel Stephens to develop a long-term community-engagement program for the department there.

He's stressed that the job is to protect the civil liberties of protesters.

In some areas we’ve seen some changes,” Davis said. “In many areas we have not. And probably more importantly, in those areas those changes will be yet to come.”

Law enforcement is readying for large-scale protests as soon as the grand jury decision is announced. Gov. Jay Nixon said earlier this week that he has the National Guard on standby so it can intervene if protests become violent.

“In working with the community members and leaders in the field, I wouldn’t say that violence is expected, but I do think everyone should be prepared for it,” Davis said.

He and other federal officials have constantly reminded local police that their job is to protect protesters’ First Amendment rights. The Justice Department provided a two-day anti-bias training for police leaders earlier this month. Davis said the training, which asks officers to identify subtle racial or other biases that affect their behavior, was “very well received.”

“If you have bias and you don’t even know it, you might be attaching fear where it shouldn’t be,” he said of the training. “Are you looking at 100 residents who are exercising their First Amendment rights to protest? Or are you looking at 100 people who cause you fear because of an implicit bias?”

One way of avoiding the kind of tension that could lead to violence, according to Davis, is by jettisoning the use of military-style police equipment.

Davis told Yahoo News he was part of a “healthy discussion” with law enforcement leadership in the area about the equipment they used during the protests, including tactical vehicles that resembled tanks. Experts shared their opinion that use of the gear can actually incite anger in protesters.

“They have to decide whether or not to take that advice and how to apply it,” Davis said. The St Louis County and city police chiefs told a local radio station on Friday that they would still use tear gas and armored vehicles if the protests turned violent, but acknowledged that the “optics” of the protests in August were not ideal.

“If our No. 1 goal is to protect people’s lives, our No. 2 goal is property, and No. 3, the constitutional rights of those that are there. I think those are tools that allow that to happen because they’re not offensive tools,” St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said of the militarized gear. “What they are are tools to keep people safe. They keep the protesters safe.”

Local cops will also receive “guardian vs. warrior” mentality training in a few months, courtesy of the Justice Department. “Officers policing a democratic society should view themselves as guardians protecting the Constitution,” Davis said.

Protesters gather for the start of a rally in St. Louis, Missouri, October 11, 2014. (REUTERS/Jim Young) Click photo for slideshow of protests in Ferguson

The work the Justice Department is doing in Ferguson will outlast whatever protests follow the grand jury decision. Justice officials have entered into a “collaborative reform” process with the police departments in St. Louis County, which will be a years-long process to evaluate and ameliorate their use of force and racial profiling and their handling of mass demonstrations.

“Regardless of that [grand jury] decision, there’s still work to be done, and everybody’s going to have to come to the table to do it,” Davis said.