Residents of Ferguson, Missouri and other communities across the country have spent the past several days observing the one-year anniversary of the police-killing of Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed African-American teenager. These overwhelmingly peaceful commemorations have reflected on the progress that has been made and the progress still needed toward reforming racially-discriminatory policing practices in Ferguson and throughout the country. The few isolated and unfortunate acts of violence against law enforcement and civilians by non-protestors on Sunday evening should not dictate the manner in which St. Louis County officials respond to the ongoing peaceful demonstrations in the St. Louis area. St. Louis County officials should learn from the harmful impact of outsized law enforcement responses to overwhelmingly peaceful protests over the past year and reconsider the state of emergency St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger issued yesterday.
In response to the police-involved killing of Michael Brown and several other persons of color across the country, and the public loss of confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system, in December of 2014 President Obama issued an executive order creating a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to examine ways of reducing crime and restoring public trust. The Task Force concluded, among other things, that law enforcement agencies’ response to mass demonstrations should prioritize de-escalation and “minimize the appearance of a military operation.” Consistent with this recommendation, recent news accounts indicate that the pending report by the Community-Oriented Policing Services Office of the Department of Justice finds that local law enforcement agencies’ military-style response to peaceful protests shortly after the death of Michael Brown was overly aggressive and exacerbated tensions between police and protesters.
“St. Louis County Executive Stenger’s executive order declaring a state of emergency to prevent ‘criminal unrest’ may escalate the already tense situation in Ferguson,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF.) “This action is even more concerning given the fact that the law only allows such a state of emergency to be declared during an act of war or natural disaster.”
Section 703.070 of the St. Louis County Revised Ordinances states that “in the event of actual enemy attack upon the United States or of the occurrence of disaster from fire, flood, earthquake, or other natural causes involving imminent peril to lives and property in St. Louis County, the County Executive…may declare that a state of emergency exists in St. Louis County.” In the past, county executives in Missouri have issued a state of emergency during inclement weather, not as a result of “criminal unrest.”
Protests persist, in part, because city officials have not responded to residents’ concerns about police misconduct. Local law enforcement officials should endeavor to partner with the community members who seek to address the unconstitutional policing practices in Ferguson uncovered by the Department of Justice in its pattern or practice investigative report issued in March. The report confirmed much of what residents already knew: Ferguson police engage in racially-discriminatory policing practices that leave them at the mercy of the county’s predatory municipal courts. This, coupled with the discovery of racist emails among Ferguson law enforcement and other questionable conduct, led to the resignations or firing of Ferguson city officials and growing support for the overhaul of Ferguson’s municipal court system. These actions would not have occurred without the persistent and courageous efforts of Ferguson residents and their allies.
“LDF urges the Ferguson city officials to take steps to remedy the constitutional violations identified by the Justice Department that continue to be unresolved,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of LDF. “The right to peaceful protest is a bedrock of our Constitution and we must strive to protect it at all costs.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is not a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. Since 1957, LDF has been a completely separate organization. Please refer to us in all media attributions as the “NAACP Legal Defense Fund” or “LDF”.