Smoke trails tear gas canisters fired into the air after protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown turned violent near Ferguson, Missouri on August 17, 2014.

© 2014 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Missouri Governor Jay Nixon should conduct a comprehensive and transparent review of the law enforcement response to the protests in Ferguson, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the governor. The protests followed the shooting death by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American on August 9, 2014.

To promote accountability, Governor Nixon should make all findings and recommendations of the review on the Ferguson response public, Human Rights Watch said.

“An urgent state-level inquiry into abuses by the various law enforcement agencies in Ferguson is crucial,” said Maria McFarland, deputy US program director at Human Rights Watch. “A full and transparent investigation would help address the many concerns of Ferguson residents, and ensure that similar police abuses never happen in Missouri again.”

Human Rights Watch spent several days in Ferguson, beginning on August 17, to investigate and report on the reasons behind the protests, as well as the police response. Law enforcement agencies in a number of instances used teargas, rubber bullets and other tactics in apparent violation of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and engaged in possible excessive use of force.

In one episode, police pointed rifles at a local resident and her 15-year-old daughter who were peacefully protesting in a private parking lot even though they had permission from the owner. In another case, a group of peaceful marchers and a photojournalist were surrounded by armored police vehicles, backed into a driveway, and tear-gassed three seconds after being told to disperse.

The law enforcement response to the protests featured a lack of transparency and accountability, Human Rights Watch said. These problems may have been exacerbated by the large number of separate local, county, and state agencies involved and the lack of communication among them. Missouri state officials have provided inconsistent information regarding which agencies were involved and when. Public records requests Human Rights Watch submitted on August 28 have gone unanswered, beyond the three-day time period that Missouri public records laws mandate for a response.

The failure to communicate and publicly designate a clear chain of command is problematic, Human Rights Watch said. Such a situation not only makes it difficult for the public to exercise their rights without a police backlash, but also robs civilians of the information necessary to lodge complaints in cases of officer misconduct, and leads to general mistrust.

“Those who protested Michael Brown’s killing, and the public at large, deserve clear answers regarding the roles of the various law enforcement agencies in Ferguson and where responsibility for the misuse of force lies,” McFarland said.