Records Reveal Divide on Ferguson Police Tactics
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Newly released emails, sent to and from Missouri’s top public-safety officials, show that the state police captain placed in charge of security in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death was both vilified and praised for attempting to replace authorities’ militarized approach with one more sympathetic to protesters.
The emails, obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request, also show that police tried to find a way to protect members of the clergy who were in the protest crowds, and that some officers objected to an order to take their meal breaks in public.
The messages offer a small window into the inner workings of Missouri law-enforcement agencies as they tried to quell the tensions that arose following the fatal shooting of the black 18-year-old by white police officer Darren Wilson. The records also illustrate one of the many challenges authorities could face if new protests develop — how to walk a fine line between providing public empathy and security.
There is no specific date for a grand jury decision to be announced on whether to charge Wilson. But anticipation has been mounting because St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has said previously that he expects a decision by mid-to-late November.
As early as Labor Day weekend, police were already discussing the need to develop a well-coordinated plan for a potential surge in protests when the grand jury decision is announced.
Brown, who was unarmed, was shot after some sort of confrontation with Wilson, who had ordered Brown and a friend to quit walking down the center of a street. Wilson has told authorities that he realized after initially encountering Brown that he matched the description of a suspect in a convenience store robbery that occurred just minutes earlier, according to reports in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that cited unnamed sources.
The shooting stirred long-simmering racial tensions in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb where the police force is composed almost entirely of white officers. After a night of riots and looting, police in subsequent days approached protesters in armored vehicles and used tear gas after some demonstrators threw rocks or Molotov cocktails.
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who is black, was put in charge by Gov. Jay Nixon to try to restore calm. He talked and marched with protesters, posed with them for photos and spoke to loud applause at a rally where he apologized to Brown’s family and described his relationship with his own son who wears sagging pants and has tattoos.
Johnson and his supervisors received numerous emails and phone calls complimenting his demeanor from law officers across Missouri and the country.
“Your agency and Captain Johnson are making Troopers all over the country proud,” Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Col. Matt Langer wrote to Missouri State Highway Patrol Col. Ron Replogle.
But other current and retired law enforcement officers sharply criticized the highway patrol, asserting that Johnson’s apology and actions implied Wilson was guilty of a crime without the benefit of a trial.
“The actions of Cpt. Johnson have infuriated me,” retired patrol officer Mike Watson wrote to Replogle. “He has single handedly destroyed the reputation of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.”
The emails show that patrol officers occasionally took personal steps to try to ease tensions or problems.
Johnson, for example, received an email from a woman who lived in the apartment complex near where Brown was shot. She complained that she was having difficulty going back and forth to her job because of protests and police blockades. Johnson told her the problem would be corrected within that week.
One officer, acknowledging he was going outside the chain of command, pleaded in an email to supervisors to tell rank-and-file officers that clergy intermingling among protesters were trying to help and should be treated accordingly. He suggested pastors could wear brightly colored T-shirts with the word “CLERGY” on front and back. Replogle, the highway patrol’s top officer, responded by offering to pay for the shirts himself, if necessary.
At other times, officers appeared to bristle at some of the expectations for interacting with residents.
In late August, a lieutenant for the highway patrol sent an email to officers in the St. Louis region detailing their shifts for patrolling Ferguson, with a requirement “to be seen by the public.”
“When eating meals, troopers must patronize the businesses in the area and not congregate at the Ferguson Police Department,” the lieutenant wrote.
Another officer redistributed the email with a note atop, stating: “The Patrol cannot force you to eat lunch with your own money,” and thanking those who attended a lunch hosted by the wives’ of Ferguson police officers.