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DOJ finds police 'violated citizens' rights' during Ferguson protests

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Charlie Riedel/AP/File

(Read caption) Police arrest a man as they disperse a protest against the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 20. A Justice Department investigation found the police response to the spate of protests following Mr. Brown's death to be 'vague and arbitrary,' according to a summary of the report obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Police actions during protests in Ferguson, Mo., last August helped antagonize crowds and violated free-speech rights, according to the summary of a US Department of Justice report obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The protests began after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man on Aug. 9, 2014. The report looks at the way agencies responded in the first 16 days after the shooting. 

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The summary – from a longer report to be released later this week – suggests that community unrest after the shooting of Mr. Brown was exacerbated when law enforcement didn’t quickly divulge details of his death.

“Had law enforcement released information on the officer-involved shooting in a timely manner and continued the information flow as it became available, community distrust and media skepticism would most likely have been lessened,” the summary reads, according to the Post-Dispatch.

The report also criticized “vague and arbitrary” orders to keep protesters moving that “violated citizens’ right to assembly and free speech.”

The summary also says that the use of dogs for crowd control incited fear and anger – a practice the Justice Department says ought to be prohibited – and that tear gas was sometimes used without warning and on people in areas from which there was no safe retreat, the paper reported.

The report also says that the authorities’ public relations failings included not having a social media strategy. Police “underestimated the impact social media had on the incident and the speed at which both facts and rumors were spread,” the report says. 

The full report is expected to name about 45 findings, each including a recommendation for improvement, according to the Post-Dispatch. The report is also subject to revision, and will be delivered this week to top police officials in Ferguson, nearby St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the Missouri Highway Patrol.

The summary reported inconsistencies in the way law enforcement used force and made arrests.

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“The four core agencies dedicated officer training and operational and tactical skills without appropriate balance of de-escalation and problem-solving training,” says the summary, according to the Post-Dispatch.

The city of Ferguson issued a statement saying they are “reviewing these latest findings and will act accordingly.” 

St. Louis Chief Samuel Dotson told the Post-Dispatch he won’t comment until he’s seen the whole report later this week.

“I don’t know if I agree with them or not, because I don’t have enough information,” he told the paper.

This will be the third of four Justice Department reports related to the Brown shooting and the law enforcement handling of the community response. The first two reports were released simultaneously in March – one saying Mr. Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, the other criticizing past practices by the Ferguson police and municipal court.

The fourth report is expected to come out this month, according to the Post-Dispatch, and will analyze the St. Louis County Police Department’s practices.

Both a grand jury and the Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who later resigned.