Nearly two months after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the public is still not entirely sure what happened that afternoon on August 9 — and it appears that Ferguson city officials are going out of their way to make it extremely difficult for anyone to access documents that may shed light on this.
We know that Brown was unarmed when he died, that he might have had his hands up, and that eyewitness accounts differ widely from Wilson's, which was relayed by the police. A grand jury reviewing evidence in the case, including testimony direct from Wilson, has yet to decide whether to charge him with a crime, and was recently given a deadline extension until January 7 to do so.
The angry protests that followed Brown's death and the outsized police response to them have been well documented — but whatever documentation there is about the shooting itself continues to be withheld.
A critical form was never filed at all, while others are kept out of public sight, hidden behind dubious bureaucratic procedures and exorbitant and apparently arbitrary fees that seem to have been put in place with the sole purpose of keeping the details of the incident on Canfield Drive a secret.
If transparency is meant to be the foundation on which Ferguson's mostly white officials and police hope to rebuild their relationship with their disillusioned and mostly black constituency, the relationship's prospects aren't looking so great.
Ferguson police took nearly a week after the shooting to name Wilson as the officer who killed Brown. After much pressure from media and civil rights groups, the police released a scant, heavily redacted two-page police report of the incident 12 days after the shooting, leaving out Brown's name and any description of the incident.
"The way that Ferguson police have handled the release of information has been critical to the fact that there is still a protest movement, and we're still facing the likelihood of major civil unrest and the riots that we all suspect are coming," Chris King, managing editor of the St. Louis American, a weekly publication serving the St. Louis area's black community, told VICE News. "It was precisely their handling of what should have been publicly available information that got us here to begin with."
"To see them move to being even more obstructionist just shows that the fatally terrible judgment of the police leadership in Ferguson is what has been almost singly responsible for the disaster that's come upon the municipality," he added.
Ferguson's police department requires use-of-force reports to be filed whenever officers resort to force, whether or not it's lethal. As Police Chief Thomas Jackson wrote in a 2010 internal memo, a supervisor is required to promptly file the report, which the department will use for "review and analysis."
"This reporting system will help identify trends, improve training and officer safety, and provide timely information for the department addressing use of force issues with the public," Jackson wrote. "Early and accurate reporting helps establish agency credibility."
But not only was a use-of-force report in the case of Brown's shooting not "timely" — in violation of the police department's own regulation, it in fact never existed, as Yahoo News discovered after it requested to see the report, which is a public record.
Filing such a report is standard practice nationwide, as required by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. The reports are used as a tool for police training, and help identify officers who have a tendency to use violence.
Missing reports, critics say, can be troubling indicators of police abuse.
"The failure to file a police report in an officer-involved shooting resulting in a citizen's death is an egregious violation of police policy and practice," Michael White, a criminology professor and the associate director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University, told VICE News. "The filing of the report by the officer is the first step in the investigative process to determine whether the officer's actions were consistent with department policy, as well as state and federal law. Failure to file a thorough report threatens to undermine the entire investigative process."
But the missing Michael Brown report is not an isolated case: Yahoo News asked to see the use-of-force report for a different case involving Wilson, in which a Ferguson resident he arrested in February 2013 alleged that he "roughed him up."That report was found to not exist either.
"This suggests slovenly management," Paul Chevigny, a criminal law professor at NYU School of Law, told VICE News. "Use-of-force reports are supposed to support a system of early warning, by which the department can pick out those prone to violence for retraining. Failure to follow the regulations means that the department does not take the management of violence seriously."
If Wilson was "prone to violence," the Ferguson police department failed to pick up on the warning signs, and its lack of a paper trail might have contributed to the problem.
"It's very difficult to get a complete statement of facts when there's a so-called officer-involved shooting, which is of course itself a way to talk around the fact that a police officer shot someone or killed someone," King said. "The incredibly blatant, unapologetic nature of the Ferguson police is almost unprecedented."
"The police report they released has almost no information on it, and they claim that everything else on that report is classified as investigative and should only be released to the prosecutor," he added. "If they had just released a complete police report in a timely manner, with all the information that you expect in a police report involving a fatal shooting, we'd be in such a different place."
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson police department in addition to a separate investigation it is conducting into the circumstances of Brown's killing.
"We have determined that there is cause for the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether Ferguson Police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the US Constitution or federal law," attorney general Eric Holder said when he announced the investigation.
The failure to file use-of-force reports is likely to be one of the first things to grab the attention of federal investigators. Ferguson officials welcomed the DOJ probe — but have remained silent on the missing reports.
The Devin James Group, public relations firm that has been handling communication for the Ferguson police department, did not respond to a VICE News request for comment. It released a video last week — more than six weeks after the shooting — in which Police Chief Jackson apologized to Brown's family.
But the St. Louis city agency that contracted the firm reportedly cut off ties with it last week, after it emerged that the firm's owner had been convicted of reckless homicide for the shooting and killing an unarmed man in 2004. Devin James told reporters he had informed his clients of his conviction, but the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which paid for the contract, said they were not aware of it.
James also said that he will continue his work for Ferguson pro bono, but did not respond to a VICE News request for comment. John Shaw, the Ferguson city manager, also did not respond to a request for comment.
…and really expensive ones
As for the reports that were filed after Brown's death, they are hardly satisfactory, critics say.
Besides the Ferguson Police Department's two-page report, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri requested another incident report from the St. Louis County Police Department. But neither document shed any light on what exactly led Darren Wilson to shoot six bullets into Michael Brown — two of which hit his head.
"It is deeply troubling and unacceptable that the two incident reports we've received completely lack any detailed information of what happened when Officer Darren Wilson encountered and then shot an unarmed Michael Brown," Diane Balogh, a spokeswoman for the civil rights group, told VICE News. "It's been seven weeks and we are still in the dark about what transpired in broad daylight on August 9 on Canfield Drive."
If other documents can clarify the circumstances of Brown's death, they are not easy to access, and Ferguson officials seem hell-bent on keeping them away from public scrutiny.
One effective way of doing this is to put a hefty price tag on them. Ferguson officials billed the Associated Press $135 an hour over the course of a day to retrieve a few email accounts, and asked VICE News and other press outfits for a $2,000 deposit prior to agreeing to gather documents we requested.
These documents must be made available to the public according to Missouri's "sunshine law" requiring government records to be available to the public.
Municipal authorities regularly charge fees to access documents — usually minimal and proportionate to printing and copying costs — but these fees can be waived when the documents are deemed to be in the public interest.
Increasingly, however, public officials nationwide have been slapping exaggerated search costs onto media requests.
When VICE News first asked for a lengthy list of documents pertaining to (among other things) Brown's death, the police response to the protests, and communication between Ferguson police and city and state officials relating to the shooting, protests, curfew, and deployment of the National Guard, we were told to expect at least a month-long wait.
Ferguson City Clerk Megan Asikainen told us then that the documents were not available because the DOJ was currently reviewing them. But a DOJ spokesperson told us that the department saw no reason why Ferguson officials couldn't comply with other requests for records at the same time.
When we pointed this out to Asikainen, she said the that some of the requested records were available for purchase while others — namely correspondence between police and city and state officials — would be subject to a deposit of $2,000.
We never got an itemized breakdown of the costs, which we requested, but we were told that the fee was "an estimate," and that the full search might end up costing more.
When we asked what, specifically, we would be paying for, we were told that the fees would cover "setting up the system to search electronic emails and similar records in accordance with the parameters set forth in your request."
"I will not start this project until I have received the initial deposit," Asikainen wrote VICE News. "The cost of this project will surely exceed the deposit amount. There is a tremendous amount of work involved with researching whether records exist which are responsive to your requests, analyzing the records, redacting the records as necessary, and any copying or duplication that will be needed. Additionally, the City Attorney's assistance is required with regard to determining the extent to which certain information should be redacted. When the deposit is received, we will assemble, research and redact documents until the deposit amount is reached. At that time, an additional deposit will be required to proceed with the remaining work."
Ferguson City Attorney Stephanie Karr did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Asikainen also denied a VICE News request for a fee waiver, essentially denying that the documents at issue would contribute to the public's understanding of government operations. She later explained that the request for a fee waiver or a reduction of fees was denied "because the fees are necessary in order to provide the materials you requested."
VICE News ultimately decided to pay the $2,000 deposit, but the back and forth, and the hefty fees we were quoted, would be enough to deter the scrutiny of private citizens who also have a legal right to these records.
Katie Townsend, the litigation director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, reviewed the correspondence between VICE News and Asikainen. She said it's clear that the city is "systematically quoting the media high potential costs for accessing this information" as a way "to make people drop their request."
"The $2,000 is an excessive amount of money, particularly because it's in the form of a deposit. It's unclear what [the city clerk] is even basing this amount on," Townsend told VICE News. "What I think is really troubling is not only did they refuse to grant the fee waiver, but they failed to identify why you would not be entitled to a fee waiver. Clearly this is a matter of intense public interest. Generally speaking, due process requires that there be some ability to appeal an adverse determination."
Despite numerous requests, Asikainen did not provide VICE News with details about the appeal process.
But not all of the documentary evidence is caught in the backlog of requests.
Less than a week after Brown's death, Ferguson police were quick to release a video implicating him in an alleged robbery at a local store shortly before he was killed. They later acknowledged that Wilson was unaware of the incident when he killed Brown, and admitted that the episodes were unrelated.
Never mind that the DOJ had asked them not to release the video and that the move predictably infuriated Brown supporters, fueling more protests and violence after a night of peaceful demonstrations.
Asked about the awkward timing and the lack of connections between the alleged robbery and shooting, Chief Jackson said that Ferguson police released the video because of media requests to do so — despite the fact that his department was at the same time ignoring plenty of other media requests.
"Because you asked for it," he answered when asked by a reporter at an August 15 press conference why his department chose to release the video when it did. "We got a lot of Freedom of Information requests for this tape, and at some point it was just determined we had to release it."
In fact, an investigation by TheBlot Magazine later found that there were no such requests for the tape. Only one local journalist had asked broadly for any multimedia evidence "leading up to" Brown's death. City officials subsequently said that the requests "were made verbally."
"At the time we published an opinion piece that I wrote that basically posed the rhetorical question, 'Why would the police chief incite violence on the streets of his own city?' " King, the managing editor of the St. Louis American, said. "I think they were manipulative."
"It's a protest movement against the police, so it's not crazy, or even surprising, that the police are trying to defeat it," he added. "They certainly are acting in an adversarial position to the protesters, and that includes determining what information is released and when. They are fighting to win."
The federal investigation will presumably provide answers to lingering questions concerning the events leading up to Brown's death. But until then, and until Ferguson residents can be satisfied that justice is done, their anger and disillusion will only grow.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi and Jason Leopold: @JasonLeopold
Topics: ferguson, americas, us, missouri, mike brown, protests, police brutality, foia, public records, sunshine laws, use of force reports, darren wilson, aclu, civil rights, doj, st. louis