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.

Ferguson, Missouri August 20, 2014
A man is doused with milk and sprayed with mist after being hit by an eye irritant from security forces trying to disperse demonstrators protesting the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 20, 2014.

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Nearly two weeks after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, many exact details of the fatal incident remain unknown. Much of what has happened since, however, has been documented in real time. Angered by both the shooting itself and a lack of answers from local authorities, residents took to the streets of the St. Louis suburb to protest. The police stoked those protests by brandishing military-grade equipment, sparking an aggressive response by some that in turn brought an even harsher crackdown from police. That cycle repeated itself on an almost nightly basis for the next 10 days.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

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

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has already documented the root causes of the tension between Ferguson’s largely black community and its predominantly white police force. But what has been missing from the debate over the police response in Ferguson is a day-by-day accounting of the specific law enforcement actions that exacerbated that pre-existing tension.

To be fair, police officers have a difficult and thankless job, and the vast majority perform admirably. On some nights in Ferguson, there have been more than 100 officers—from a number of different departments—patrolling the protests, and many have done no wrong. That said, in the days since Brown was killed, there has been a pattern of official missteps and misconduct.

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Here is our best attempt at a Ferguson timeline, with law enforcement behavior that ranges from the rational to the possibly justified to the highly questionable to the downright unconstitutional.

THE SHOOTING

Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: A white Ferguson Police officer, later identified as Darren Wilson, shoots and kills Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.

Two competing narratives quickly emerged about the incident, one from police who say that the officer acted in self-defense and one from several witnesses who have said that Wilson was the aggressor. What both sides agree on is that Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. County prosecutors began presenting evidence to a grand jury 11 days later, but it will likely take months before jurors reach a decision on whether Wilson should be charged. If he ultimately is, many details of the official investigation could remain sealed until trial, making it likely that questions about what happened in the moments before Wilson opened fire will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future.

THE CRIME SCENE

Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: Wilson allegedly does not alert dispatch to the shooting.

This detail remains unconfirmed. It stems from comments made by the attorney for Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Brown during the confrontation with police. The lawyer complained to the Washington Post that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting the “officer doesn’t attempt to resuscitate [Brown]. … He does not call for medical help. The officer didn’t call it in that someone had been shot.” But, as PunditFact has explained, there is reason to doubt that claim. Incident reports later released by Ferguson police indicate a prompt response, and an audio recording from the St. Louis County dispatch also suggests that police requested assistance with crowd control in the area.

Saturday, Aug. 9, afternoon: Brown’s body remains at the scene of the shooting for several hours, a large portion of that time uncovered.

This grisly detail is undisputed. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that one reason for the delay in processing the crime scene was that officers at the scene heard gunfire nearby (although those shots were never confirmed). Adding to the community’s anguish at seeing Brown’s body in the middle of the road was the fact that his mother, Lesley McSpadden, was at the scene pleading with police. “Why y’all got my son out in the street?” McSpadden told the officers, according to a neighbor who was present. Even Jackson would later admit that he was “uncomfortable” with how long Brown’s body remained in the open.

Sunday, Aug. 10, morning: Police provide only limited information about the shooting.

At a morning press conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the shooting was sparked by a physical confrontation instigated by Brown, and that Brown at one point reached for the officer’s gun. Belmar declined to provide further details or release the name of the officer. As for the number of times the unarmed teen was shot, Belmar offered up a sound bite that encapsulated what many saw as authorities’ cavalier attitude about Brown’s death. “It was more than just a couple, but I don’t think it was many more than that,” the chief said.

THE PROTESTS BEGIN

Sunday, Aug. 10: The police respond to growing protests with military-grade riot gear.

Ferguson residents gathered at the scene of Brown’s death on Saturday, and a smaller group of roughly 100 people rallied outside Ferguson police headquarters later that night. The demonstrations gained significant steam on Sunday night, with a growing number of residents congregating on West Florissant Avenue. While largely peaceful, the protests were not entirely so. A candlelight vigil was marred by violence as protesters smashed car windows and looted local businesses.

Fearing the worst about what was then still largely a peaceful demonstration, authorities responded by deploying officers in military-grade riot gear and armored trucks, quickly setting the tone for what would unfold over the following days. Radley Balko, who literally wrote the book on the militarization of American police, has already documented how dressing for battle increases the chances that you’ll engage in one. Several police chiefs have also expressed reservations about the gear in the past. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk,” Chris Burbank, a police chief in Salt Lake City, told Balko last fall. “That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Officers respond with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Local police, playing the part for which they are dressed, confronted protesters by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. Dahlia Lithwick and Daria Roithmayr have already explained in Slate how such actions are unconstitutional. The due process clause of the Constitution bans officers from using excessive force even when they are attempting to control a crowd or arrest a suspect. “And tear gas is in a category all its own,” Lithwick and Roithmayr wrote. “Not only is unleashing it into a crowd an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force, but its use is banned by international law.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Authorities dispatch officers with police dogs to help control the crowds.

Deploying tear gas and rubber bullets garnered the most attention, but the police made another highly questionable decision in attempting to control the crowds. Authorities also dispatched a number of officers with police dogs, a move that drew comparisons to how police used similar tactics during the Jim Crow era. As former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper, who was in charge during widespread protests in his city in 1999, later told Vox, “using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Officers use an LRAD sound cannon in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

A journalist live-streaming the demonstrations for Argus Radio captured the sound cannons, which blast pain-inducing noises over long distances, on film. The technology has previously sparked fears that it can cause permanent hearing loss, particularly if an officer isn’t properly trained in how to use it. “Human discomfort starts when a sound hits 120dB, well below the LRAD’s threshold,” Gizmodo explains. “Permanent hearing loss begins at 130dB, and if the device is turned up to 140dB, anyone within its path would not only suffer hearing loss, they could potentially lose their balance and be unable to move out of the path of the audio.”

Tuesday, Aug. 12: Police backtrack on releasing the name of the officer involved in the shooting.

Chief Jackson canceled plans to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing concerns for the safety of the officer and his colleagues. This decision further inflamed an already frustrated community, further fueling unrest among protesters who had been demanding answers (and getting none) for several days.

Tuesday, Aug. 12: The FAA bans low-flying aircraft over Ferguson.

The agency issued the temporary restrictions—which effectively barred news helicopters from the city's skies—at the request of local police, who claimed the ban was needed after one of its own choppers was shot at "multiple times on Sunday night," according to a spokesman.​ The ban was originally supposed to last one week but was extended for another seven days on Monday, Aug. 18, “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities," according to the FAA.

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Ferguson police officers reportedly remove their nametags and refuse to identify themselves when asked.

Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly was among the first to point out the lack of ID, a fact that was then confirmed by numerous photos. Some states require a police officer to identify him- or herself, but former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, now a professor of criminal justice at the University of MissouriSt. Louis, told Slate that he was "not aware" of any law that required police in Missouri to wear identification or give their names if asked. Still, the seeming anonymity, and resulting unaccountability, of officers in Ferguson would become a running theme.