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Lessons from the Police Response to the Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri

On September 3, 2014, the COPS Office released the After-Action Assessment of the Police Response to the August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. The After-Action Assessment focused on the 17-day period starting immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown at 12:02 p.m. CDT on August 9, 2014, through midnight on August 25, 2014, the day of his funeral.1 The COPS Office—with its technical assistance provider, Institute for Intergovernmental Research—led a team of subject matter experts “to examine the police response to the mass gatherings, identify significant findings about critical decisions and practices, and develop lessons learned that law enforcement agencies nationwide can use to help build trust, improve relationships, and protect civil rights in the communities they serve.” 2 Specifically, the assessment team evaluated the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the Ferguson Police Department, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The 188-page report, which includes an eight-page executive summary, provides background on issues ranging from use of force to incident command and management to communications and community engagement and provides the assessment team’s 48 identified findings and 113 associated lessons learned. The report, especially the lessons learned, is intended to be used as a guidebook for agencies across the country on how to prepare for and respond to mass demonstrations. The report provides a description on a topic, which is then followed by the findings and lessons learned specific to that topic. Key findings are listed in the executive summary, and below are some of the highlighted lessons learned associated with those findings:

  • Law enforcement agencies should develop comprehensive operational plans that include short-term response strategies that directly support long-term operational goals (Lesson learned 2.2, page 39)
  • Law enforcement agencies should use the NIMS [National Incident Management System] model for a critical incident, particularly when there is a multiagency response. Agencies should not only adopt the NIMS operating model and meet certification standards but also regularly train and exercise with participating agencies (Lesson learned 4.1, page 39)
  • Police policy and procedures guiding the use of canines should prohibit their use for crowd control (Lesson learned 7.1, page 51)
  • For the very limited circumstances when tear gas is used, law enforcement must deploy tear gas only when people have a means of safe egress and after appropriate warnings are clearly announced and sufficient time is allowed for individuals to leave the area (Lesson learned 8.1, page 51)
  • Use of equipment or weaponry should be restricted to limited situations that clearly justify their use. Policies and procedures should clearly state the limited situations for their deployment (Lesson learned 13.1, page 59)
  • While law enforcement must meet its duty to protect people and property during mass demonstrations and protests, it can never do so at the expense of upholding the Constitution and First Amendment-protected rights (Lesson learned 18.2, page 64)
  • Law enforcement agencies must ensure operational and tactical training is balanced with training that provides officers with tools to evaluate and de-escalate law enforcement encounters prior to resorting to use of force (Lesson learned 22.1, page 68)
  • The process of public policing should be open and transparent. As such, policies of law enforcement agencies should be publicly available and easily accessible except for those narrowly defined and special orders whose disclosure may jeopardize sensitive police operations (Lesson learned 25.1, page 72)
  • Law enforcement agencies must invest time to establish trusted relationships with all segments of the communities they serve to promote ongoing, effective communications that can be leveraged during challenging times (Lesson learned 33.1, page 88)
  • Law enforcement should establish a practice to release all information lawfully permitted as soon as possible and on a continuing basis, unless there is a compelling investigatory or public safety reason not to release the information. A “compelling reason” should be narrowly defined and limited in scope (Lesson learned 37.1 [truncated], page 95)
  • Law enforcement agencies should have some capacity to use social media during emergency situations. They should develop a social media strategy along with policies and procedures that align with the agency’s mission and culture. Critical response policies and procedures should be included (Lesson learned 39.1, page 103)
  • Agencies and local governments should develop technologically based preventive strategies as part of both policy and training to ensure the security of all personnel records containing personally identifiable information to prevent theft and to monitor attempts to access the information (Lesson learned 41.3, page 107)
  • In times of prolonged and stressful duty, law enforcement agencies should closely monitor officers’ emotional and physical well-being and develop a resilience support program that includes peer support (Lesson learned 43.1, page 112)
  • The response in Ferguson demonstrates the importance of law enforcement agencies engaging in dedicated and proactive efforts to understand the communities they serve and to foster strong trust between officers and the community (Lesson learned 46.1, page 116)
  • Law enforcement agencies need to enhance police legitimacy and procedural justice in every interaction officers have with the public. By enhancing these principles, law enforcement can foster and maintain better police-community relationships (Lesson learned 46.4, page 116)

Altogether, the lessons learned in the After-Action Assessment of the Police Response to the August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri represent important steps for law enforcement agencies to evaluate in their own agencies. Moving forward, Ferguson and subsequent demonstration and protests should be used as learning moments to help prevent and respond to similar incidents.

In addition to this report, there are other COPS Office resources that can be useful to an agency:

Nazmia E.A. Comrie
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Science Analyst
The COPS Office


1 Institute for Intergovernmental Research, After-Action Assessment of the Police Response to the August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, COPS Office Critical Response Initiative (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015).

2 Ibid


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