Police have used questionable tactics in Ferguson, Missouri to quell riots in the wake of a cop shooting a black unarmed 18-year-old, from arresting journalists to using tear gas on peaceful protesters to bringing barking police dogs into the streets.
“Using dogs on a crowd in a civil disturbance has been a no-no in policing since Selma, Alabama,” former police chief Chuck Drago told Business Insider, referring to bloody civil rights protests in 1965. “It doesn’t look good. It’s a PR nightmare if nothing else, and it just stirs people up.”
Tensions between Ferguson cops and Ferguson residents actually started long the shooting death last weekend of Michael Brown days before he was supposed to start college. The city is 67% black, but only three out of 53 police officers in the city are African-American, The New York Times notes. There’s evidence of racial profiling in the city, as The Times notes that blacks account for 87% of traffic stops in Ferguson.
“It started years before this … The shooting is just the spark that ignites it,” said Drago, who served as a senior law enforcement adviser to former Florida governor Charlie Crist after his retirement from the police force.
But even since the shooting, the police department appears to have made a bad situation worse.
The public has questioned the police’s versions of the shooting. While police say Brown assaulted the officer who shot him, an eye witness said Brown was shot in the back and repeatedly said he didn’t have a gun.
The lack of transparency in the investigation has also added to the mistrust residents feel towards their police officers, as police have refused to name the officer who shot Brown.
When “the police department tightens and batters down the hatches, [it] makes things so much worse,” Drago said, adding that it should not be a surprise when such a tense community “rises up.”
“It’s a textbook example of how not to handle the situation,” St. Louis City Councilman Antonio French told The New York Times, referring to the general police response in the aftermath of the shooting. “Ferguson has a white government and a white mayor but a large black population. This situation has brought out whatever rifts were between that minority community and the Ferguson government.”
Cops have also given the impression they’re trying to hush things up bytear gassing a TV crewand arresting journalists for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
“It sends a message that you’re trying to cover things up,” Drago said. Instead, he said, police officers should work with the media to help disseminate as much information as possible to help quell rumours and rebuild trust.
Arrests, especially of protesters, should generally be a last resort as should the use of tear gas, Drago said.
“The whole idea is to protect property and life but allow people to protest peacefully as much as you can. Sometimes you need to give them the street,” he said.
Unfortunately, police — who have to wear riot gear in order protect themselves — are not going to do much to build a relationship with the community while the protests are actually going on.
“It’s kind of like Israel and Gaza, trying to get them to stop while they’re fighting,” Drago said. “The police are not going to resolve it in the streets with tear gas for sure.”
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