A Comprehensive Timeline of the Many, Many Missteps by Police in Ferguson

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Aug. 21 2014 8:56 PM

Everything That Went Wrong in Ferguson

A timeline of the authorities’ many missteps in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

(Continued from Page 1)

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Police arrest the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Reilly at a local McDonald’s.

The two reporters were using the fast-food joint as a staging area during their coverage of the protests outside when police entered the establishment and instructed them to leave. According to Lowery, the police gave conflicting instructions on how they were supposed to exit and eventually decided that they weren’t leaving fast enough, at which point they were taken into custody. The arrests prompted critical responses by a number of media organizations, as well as President Obama, who had this to say the following day: “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” Even in the moment, Ferguson authorities appeared to see the problem. Told what had happened by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, the local police chief responded, “Oh, God.”

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Police arrest Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, along with a dozen or so protesters.


The detention of reporters generated the most coverage of any arrests in Ferguson, with this possible exception. French, a local official who had been meeting with protesters and documenting the actions of police, remained in jail overnight (unlike Lowery and Reilly) despite no formal charges ever being filed. French said that his arresting officer told him he was being taken into custody "because you didn't listen."

Wednesday, Aug. 13: A group of Al Jazeera America journalists is hit by tear gas while preparing to broadcast.

The incident was captured on camera, and the images quickly spread on social media, along with rumors that police also confiscated the crew’s equipment. The following day, however, the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department released a statement saying that the journalists were not specifically targeted. Once a SWAT team discovered the Al Jazeera crew had been caught in the cloud of tear gas, the department said, members helped the journalists to safety and later disassembled their equipment for them. A representative for the department also said the reporters “thanked their officers” for the help. Al Jazeera later confirmed that police eventually did come to the aid of its crew, but cameraman Sam Winslade disputed the suggestion that he and his colleagues weren't originally targeted. "We were fired at from a police MRAP vehicle," Winslade told the Wrap, referring to the armored vehicles the police were using. He said that after seeking shelter between houses, a different police vehicle eventually pulled up. “They opened the back of the vehicle and ordered us inside," he said.

Thursday, Aug. 14: Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson takes charge of operations on the ground.

Johnson, a black Ferguson native, was brought in to coordinate the police response and quickly instituted a less aggressive policy toward protesters. That night’s demonstrations went smoothly. The iconic moment of the night was Johnson marching with—and hugging—protesters. As the Associated Press put it: “Within hours [of the change in command], the mood among protesters becomes lighter, even festive. The streets are filled with music, free food and even laughter.”

Friday, Aug. 15: The Ferguson Police Department releases the name of the officer—but also surveillance footage purporting to show Brown robbing a convenience store shortly before he was shot and killed.

Almost a week after the shooting, the Ferguson police finally heeded the calls to name the officer who shot Brown: Darren Wilson. But they released the surveillance footage at the same press conference, despite the fact that police would later admit that Wilson was unaware that Brown was a robbery suspect at the time of the shooting. The release of the video came against the wishes of the Justice Department, which reportedly feared that the footage would only elevate tensions. Such concerns proved correct: The good will that Johnson earned the previous night was in fact largely undone after the Ferguson Police Department’s press conference.

Saturday, Aug. 16: Gov. Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency and imposes a curfew.

The curfew—from midnight to 5 a.m.—largely failed as a crowd control effort, with clashes between protesters and police beginning on Saturday and Sunday in the hours before the curfew even began. Sunday’s unrest was particularly intense, marking one of the more violent days since the demonstrations began. It’s impossible to know if the curfew was to blame for the chaotic events, or if it simply failed to prevent them. Either way, the curfew was lifted on Monday, Aug. 18.

Sunday, Aug. 17: Officers make explicit threats to members of the media.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was threatened with mace and, in one of the more troubling moments caught on film since the demonstrations began, Mustafa Hussein, a journalist who had been live-streaming the unrest for Argus Radio, was warned by an officer to turn off his camera light lest he be “shelled.” While the previous week’s arrest of Lowery and Reilly appeared to happen almost by accident, Sunday night’s events suggested some officers had begun to specifically target members of the media.

Sunday, Aug. 17: A police officer is captured on camera shouting at protesters, “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!

Such language, Samuel Walker, the emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told Slate, was only a sign of the larger problems. “If they know they can get away with that type of language, that really defines the culture of the department,” Walker said.

Monday, Aug. 18: An anonymous source leaks details from the official autopsy that suggest Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death.

While the official results of the death investigation were still under wraps, an unnamed source leaked this detail in what many said was an attempt to smear Brown’s character. “Let me be real clear to everyone here,” Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family, told reporters. “This family never said Michael Brown was a perfect kid.”

Monday, Aug. 18: The governor calls in the National Guard.

Nixon made the decision to bring in the guardsmen without first alerting the White House. Calling in the guard was within Nixon’s rights, but clearly it irked the president. “I’ll be watching to see that it’s helping, not hindering, progress,” Obama said of Nixon’s decision to use the guard in a support role. Officials would not say how many members of the National Guard were deployed to Ferguson, although they suggested that they would mostly be used as a second line of defense at the unified command center.

Monday, Aug. 18: Several more reporters are arrested while doing their jobs.

CNN’s Don Lemon was shoved by police, and his colleague Jake Tapper was forced to flee tear gas. Getty photographer Scott Olson was arrested after he ventured outside one of the preapproved areas that police had been using to sequester reporters, and the Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux and others were detained overnight. “[N]eedless to say, it’s an outrage that he was stopped and handcuffed by police in the course of lawfully doing his job on the streets of Ferguson,” Intercept editor John Cook wrote in the hours after Devereaux’s arrest.

Tuesday, Aug. 19: Gov. Nixon says he won’t replace the county prosecutor despite concerns about his strong ties to police.

Residents, already fearing that there wouldn’t be a fair investigation into Brown’s death, worry that St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s family history will further stack the deck. According to the Associated Press, “McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.” Nixon, however, was unmoved by that evidence.

Tuesday, Aug. 19: An officer points his weapon directly at a protester.

The protests were largely peaceful Tuesday night, leading Johnson to declare at an overnight press conference, “I believe there was a turning point made.” But despite the relatively good vibes, there were still isolated issues that caused concern. An officer was seen pointing a semiautomatic assault rifle at a protester. When members of the crowd verbally confronted the officer, he responded: “I will fucking kill you. Get back.” Asked his name, he offered a similar rejoinder: “Go fuck yourself.” After the ACLU lodged an official complaint, the officer was relieved of duty and suspended indefinitely the following day.

Wednesday, Aug. 20: Cooling down.

The protests shrunk from large demonstrations to smaller groups circling the streets downtown. “The story of Ferguson isn’t over,” Slate’s Bouie wrote in a dispatch from the ground the following day. “There’s still a lot of energy, and local activists hope to channel it into something durable and long lasting. … But if [Wednesday] night is any indication, the large, mass protests of the last week are over.”

Thursday, Aug. 21: The National Guard begins to leave.

Nixon orders the Missouri National Guard to begin withdrawing from Ferguson, saying that the situation on the ground has greatly improved. In total, at least 155 people have been arrested since Brown’s shooting, with roughly 80 percent of those charged with “refusal to disperse.” While the large-scale demonstrations appear to have subsided for now, protesters are far from satisfied. On Thursday, attention shifts to those who are outraged by Nixon’s decision to allow McCulloch to lead the investigation into Brown’s death.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 



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