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Dispatches: In Ferguson, a Police Failure to Communicate
August 19, 2014

Law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, has repeatedly blamed outside instigators for violent acts that have led police to use teargas, rubber bullets, and pain-inducing sound cannons against protesters. Last night was no exception.

I arrived at the main protest site at about 7:30 p.m. and encountered a calm scene – West Florissant Avenue was empty of traffic, the police having blocked off a mile-or-so-long stretch of the thoroughfare. Demonstrators who stopped there were reminded by police, and at times by clergy or other community members, to follow a new police rule: to keep moving. The National Guard arrived in Ferguson yesterday, but I didn't see them. Their duties are purportedly limited to guarding the temporary police command center, a grouping of trailers in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.

The peace did not last. Later last night, I joined a scrum of reporters gathered around Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson as he gave a press briefing a few feet beyond the internal perimeter, surrounded by a line of about a dozen police officers. The press briefing ended abruptly when Captain Johnson, whom Gov. Jay Nixon put in charge of security in Ferguson last week, broke away from the group and rushed back to the protest area, and was quickly surrounded by a crowd of protesters. It was difficult to see what was happening in the crowd, but by 10 p.m. Johnson had parted from the protesters and a line of about 150 police officers wearing riot shields and holding batons was facing off against a crowd across a distance of about 10 feet.

I saw a plastic water bottle being hurled at the police, and their line advanced.

Local residents took to bullhorns to calm the more heated elements of the crowd, who were yelling and approaching the police line.

By dawn, the police had arrested 31 people. Once again, police had resorted to teargas and sound cannons. Again they asserted that some individuals in the crowd were engaging in violence.

That may be true, and police have a difficult task in protecting the town from criminal acts while also respecting people’s rights to protest. Yet part of the problem in Ferguson also lies with law enforcement’s failure to establish reasonable rules, communicate them clearly, and give protesters and observers a fair chance to comply with them.

“The rules change day by day,” said Carlos Ortiz, a freelance journalist covering the protests. “It’s hard to know what to do.”

The police put up barricades and issue orders on the ground, but post little information online or on twitter feeds.

It can even be hard to comply with orders to disperse. Audio of protests on August 10 has police ordering a crowd to disperse, and within seconds one hears teargas being fired at them. State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal told me that when she – along with about 150 protesters – tried to comply with an order to retreat that night, they ended up trapped in a dead-end street, with police firing teargas at them. Whenever they tried to leave, police told them to “go the other way,” but there was nowhere to go.

Photographer Chris Renteria told me when he tried to comply with an order to disperse on the night of Sunday, August 17, he ended up trapped on an embankment with about 15 other people, where they were penned in by three police armored vehicles. “I would never have put myself in that position,” he said. “As soon as the order was given to disperse, I started backing up.” But events moved too quickly for him, and he got hit by teargas.

Even simple communication between police and Ferguson residents can be fraught. Yesterday I briefly chatted with a public information officer for the police. I later talked to a young man who had approached the same officer with questions; he said that the officer asked him if he was with the media. When the young man explained he was just a community member, the officer brushed him off.

International standards provide that law enforcement implement rules on the use of force; but for such rules to be meaningful, the public needs to know them. Simply by communicating more clearly and effectively, law enforcement in Ferguson might go a long way towards making protesters safer and their own jobs easier.