‘It was a productive night’: Police in Ferguson try new tactics

Racial dynamics appear to change with appointment of black cop to top post in turbulent St. Louis suburb security op

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, right, talks to people during a peaceful demonstration, as communities react to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 14, 2014.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The tenor of police interaction with protesters in Ferguson changed dramatically on Thursday night, as the new top cop, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, shepherded in a new sense of calm.

With close ties to the community and no qualms about fist-bumping demonstrators, his appointment by Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday was one of the most visible responses to the chorus of government voices that had expressed harsh criticism of the police tactics used since police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Saturday.

Nixon decided to place Missouri’s State Highway Patrol in charge of law enforcement efforts because, as he said at a tense press conference on Thursday afternoon, “a softer front may present an alternative avenue."

His decision sidelined the St. Louis County Police Department, which had been leading security efforts, along with the Ferguson police force. The change on the streets was immediate.

“It was a productive night, and it went well,” Johnson told Al Jazeera late Thursday evening. “We communicated a little bit better. Both sides got to express their feelings about what has taken place since Saturday evening. There has been an understanding of the pain, questions, and concerns.”

Johnson said his goal was “not to speak from a script … in daily press conferences to provide information about what’s going on. We’re going to heal some old wounds.”

Cops: ‘An intimidating sight’

With national attention focused on the violent clashes that many said evoked a war zone, an array of experts suggested that the militarization of police materiel — the use of machine guns, armored vehicles and camouflage uniforms — created a police presence disproportionate to the threat posed by protesters.

Observers suggested that the crowd control techniques used by riot police from Sunday through Wednesday — rubber bullets, tear gas, smoke bombs and stun grenades — appear to have increased unrest among demonstrators. 

But critical protesters received scant sympathy from Ferguson police. Chief Thomas Jackson explained how his officers attempted to maintain order during the marches. “Are you peacefully protesting?” Jackson asked rhetorically. “If the crowd is getting violent, and you don’t want to be violent, get out of the crowd.”

Manuel Gomez, a former New York Police Department sergeant, put St. Louis' perceived strategic errors in context. “Large police forces have long tentacles in the community that can take care of civil unrest long before … it's going to look like this,” he said.

In reference to Nixon's abrupt organizational overhaul, Gomez added, “Violence begets violence. And that's apparently their methodology, so that's why they were replaced.”

Although some African-American leaders, including Rep. John Lewis , D-Ga., have called for protestors to be protected by the deployment of the National Guard, others fear that they would present an overbearing security presence as well.

‘This has touched a nerve’

But Johnson’s presence was enough to calm Ferguson — for now.

“I hesitate to say how much his race has to do with it," Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts told Al Jazeera. "He chose a lighter touch, and he marched with the demonstrators.”

“This is about structural entities and the way that [police] treat African-American people,” Pitts said. “But it doesn’t automatically get solved if you just put an African-American inside that structure.”

Nixon explained the difficulty of placating aggrieved residents when he spoke on Thursday.

“The challenge we face is not whether you have enough officers, resources, or strength on the police side,” he said. “An operational shift with a little bit more flexibility could provide a little bit more breathing space,” but he emphasized that the highway patrol were still “going to protect business owners and families from indiscriminate acts of force.”

The governor’s words seemed to reinforce what President Barack Obama emphasized in an address to the nation on Thursday: “There is never an excuse for violence against police, or those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.”

Indeed, Obama seemed to have inspired the governor’s policy shift, in appealing for de-escalation.

“The attempt to move forward, and move back a little bit of equipment, doesn't mean we'll give up on the rule of law,” Nixon said, before adding his perspective. “There are deep and existing problems, not only in Missouri but in America. This has touched a nerve.”

There are deep and existing problems, not only in Missouri but in America.

Jay Nixon

Missouri Governor

After being tear-gassed the night before by police while participating in the rallies, Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said on Thursday, “This is your Katrina, governor,” referring to the disastrous 2005 hurricane relief efforts around New Orleans. “You have the same responsibility George Bush had.”

She asked, in an Al Jazeera broadcast: “Why is it that you cannot come to ground zero [in Ferguson], where people are expressing their rights to speak?”

Asked to respond to Chappelle-Nadal's accusations, Nixon said, "I try to put gasoline into the engine of the fire truck ... not on the fire."

On Thursday night, from Baltimore and Birmingham to Chicago and Los Angeles, people gathered last night for a “national moment of silence” honoring victims of police brutality.

In Ferguson, with tempers cooling slightly, community leaders hoped the optimism might extend into a weekend of renewed outreach, reasoned dialogue and quieter streets.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said his group on Thursday was successfully “able to sit down and give [state officials] a formula that I think works, and come up with a plan for marches.” Pruitt said he had advised law enforcement brass to “protect their right to protest, and you’ll find you have allies behind those lines.”

Leo McGuire, the former sheriff of New Jersey's Bergen County said Johnson's appointment and a new strategy to rekindle trust in the police was “a good move by the [Missouri] governor.”

McGuire emphasized that public safety personnel should “reflect the community in which we serve” by recruiting more officers from minority neighborhoods. “If you want to have a relationship, it takes time," he said. "This is not going to be fixed overnight.”

“Mistakes are going to happen,” McGuire said. “But [police] have to be prepared to protect civil rights, as well as life and property."

In summarizing his sense of purpose, Capt. Johnson said last night, “We built a little trust this evening between law enforcement and our community. I thought it was important to get out and feel the pulse."

"The best way to do that was to stand alongside...as we walk and march down the street."

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