(New York) – Law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Missouri should respect the public’s right to peaceful protest following the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case, Human Rights Watch said today. In the event of renewed protests, police should permit peaceful assembly and expression, refrain from using excessive force, and conduct operations with transparency and accountability.
A state grand jury will soon decide whether to indict a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, for the fatal shooting of Brown, an African-American teenager, on August 9, 2014. Citing the “possibility of expanded unrest” should the grand jury decide not to indict, Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri on November 17 declared a 30-day state of emergency.
“Respect for protesters’ rights should be at the heart of an effective law enforcement response to any demonstrations in Ferguson,” said Alba Morales, criminal justice researcher with the US program at Human Rights Watch. “While Missouri understandably wants to be prepared for the risk of unrest, state and local officials need to make clear that abuses like those in August are unacceptable.”
Brown’s killing touched off large public demonstrations, beginning the evening of August 10 and continuing mostly unabated for two weeks. Human Rights Watch found serious problems in the police response to the protests. The problems included the intimidation of protesters that infringed upon their rights to assembly and freedom of expression, which are protected under both the US Constitution and international law. At times, the police used unnecessary and disproportionate force. The authorities also hindered media organizations from gathering news on the protests.
The protests laid bare bitter and longstanding tensions between residents of Ferguson, an overwhelmingly black township, and its majority-white police force, owing to what residents said was racially discriminatory policing. Many residents described to Human Rights Watch years of police harassment and intimidation.
Human Rights Watch has twice written to Governor Nixon since early September to request that Missouri undertake a comprehensive and transparent review both of the reasons underlying the protests and of the law enforcement response, and to improve policies and practices for policing future protests. The governor’s office has not responded to the letters.
“If new protests break out in Ferguson, law enforcement will have an opportunity to show that they have learned from past experience,” Morales said. “Far from improving public security, disproportionate responses to protests only fuel anger and resentment, while endangering protesters and bystanders.”