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Why there wasn't accountability for the police in Ferguson

Who's in charge of these cops? It changes every night.
Who's in charge of these cops? It changes every night.
Scott Olson

UPDATE: On the afternoon of Thursday, August 14th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon placed the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of response to protesters. This article has been updated to reflect the change.

As the nation's attention is on the aggressive, militarized police response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, there's a lot of clamoring for accountability. On Thursday morning, the St. Louis County Police Department, which was in charge of the response to the protests on the night of Wednesday, August 13, was pulled out of Ferguson. That afternoon, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said that the Missouri Highway Patrol would be put in charge of the response to protesters.

You can't understand the police actions in Ferguson — and the size of the change Nixon's announcement represents — without understanding this: for the first several days of protests in Ferguson, there were several different agencies on the ground. And none of them were in charge.

Prior to Thursday morning, there were at least four different police departments on the ground in Ferguson at any given time: the Ferguson police themselves, the St. Louis County police (where Ferguson is located), police from the City of St. Louis, and police from the Missouri Highway Patrol. Additionally, police forces from neighboring cities — such as Dellwood — were photographed at the scene. St. Louis County police were withdrawn on Thursday, and the head of the St. Louis city police said that his officers would not be in Ferguson on Thursday night.

At the press conference Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson held Wednesday — the first press conference since the unrest on Sunday — reporter Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times asked who was in charge of making the decision to tear-gas and shoot rubber bullets at protesters and use flashbangs. Jackson's response, at 15:56, was interesting and important:

Here's the transcript of the exchange (emphasis added):

Pearce: Who makes decision to tear gas (inaudible)?
Jackson: The commander on the scene.
Pearce: What agency is he from? Who's in charge?
Jackson: Sometimes it's highway patrol, St. Louis County, us, St. Louis City...
Pearce: So when something goes down on West Florissant (inaudible) at night, police (inaudible) from different agencies there, there's one person in charge of all of them, or (inaudible)?
Jackson: There's one incident commander each night.
Pearce: So that commander rotates, it's not the same guy.
Jackson: Yes.

What that means is that at least four different people, from different police departments, made the decision to tear-gas protesters: one for each night tear-gas canisters were fired (August 10, 11, 12, and 13). That meant that the problem wasn't just with the St. Louis County police, or with the Ferguson police. (Ferguson mayor Jay Knowles said on Thursday that the St. Louis County police had been in charge "tactically" since Sunday, which conflicted with Jackson's account — but raised further questions about who was really in command of what was going on.)

More importantly, it made it impossible for one police chief to be held accountable for what officers are doing in Ferguson. It wasn't clear what the relationship was between an "incident commander" who was making decisions at the protest site, and the chief of his police department. But because the public didn't even know which agency the "incident commander" was with, it was impossible to demand that that police chief restrain his officers. When Ferguson chief Jackson gave his press conference Wednesday, he was asked whether there would be tear gas used on Wednesday night. He said, "I hope not." But he honestly couldn't make any promises, because it turned out that the St. Louis County police were the ones in charge. Now, Governor Nixon has officially designated the Missouri Highway Patrol as the agency to whom the public should be directing their demands for accountability and de-escalation.

ferguson cops

Cops from one of the many agencies with boots on the ground in Ferguson. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Police chiefs who want to defuse the tension simply can't

In fact, the promises Jackson did make about what police would do on Wednesday were quickly broken by the police on the scene. He said repeatedly that protesters would be allowed to continue to assemble, even after sunset (although the Ferguson police and city government had asked protesters to leave 5pm), as long as they were peaceful and weren't blocking the road for more than a brief time.

That's not what happened — guns and tactical vehicles were aimed on protesters on the sidewalk, even hours before sunset, and the confrontation between police and protesters after sunset began when police started demanding that protesters retreat 25 feet from where they'd been standing peacefully for hours. Jackson was wrong, and the contrast between his words on Wednesday afternoon and officers' actions a few hours later further eroded public trust in a police force that was already losing it rapidly. The lack of accountability in Ferguson made it impossible to rebuild the public's trust.

Jackson said Wednesday that he's been working with the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice, so that the Ferguson Police Department can rebuild its relationship with the city's black community. "I've asked them, 'Tell me what to do," Jackson said. But his actions didn't matter at that point.

Governor Nixon did exactly what he needed to do in placing one agency in charge of the response to protesters. Until there are no longer dozens of police from multiple agencies responding to protests, the Ferguson Police Department can't fix its relationship with the community and defuse tension. Now that there is a clear agency to hold accountable, hopefully that tension will begin to be defused — and as tension is defused, it's likely police will feel they need to de-escalate their presence.

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