Pelted with bottles, forced to wear flack jackets: Ferguson Police reveal year of “hell”
Pelted with bottles, forced to wear flack jackets: Ferguson Police reveal year of “hell”
In the words of one Ferguson police officer: ‘We went through hell’.
Cops from the most infamous police force in America have revealed that they lost count of how many times they nearly broke under the pressure in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown.
Serving and former officers in Ferguson, Missouri, wept after being branded racist and unconstitutional by a scathing Department of Justice report into their force.
They have been taunted by criminals who say to them: ‘Are you gonna shoot me like Mike Brown?’
They have begun second guessing their decisions and fear that they will be shot dead because they cannot make split-second calls.
But incredibly they claim they have yet to receive any training at all on race relations despite the Department of Justice report recommending root and branch reform.
Ferguson police officers were on the front line when riots erupted after Michael Brown was shot dead by former cop Darren Wilson on August 9th last year, a year ago this Sunday.
Night after night they stood face-to-face with protesters during clashes which razed entire blocks of the city.
But until now their story has not been told.
In interviews with Daily Mail Online they described how morale has been ‘down the tubes’ with some officers ‘just hanging in there’.
Some have taken to wearing an armored vest every day for protection – even when they are off duty.
The abuse from the public has been constant and the hate has lasted all year, with the three black officers getting the brunt of it.
Officer Robert Kirkwood quit following an ugly incident in March when he was pelted with bottles and called an ‘Uncle Tom’ in the McDonald’s restaurant on West Florissant Road where the protests erupted after Brown’s death.
Footage shot by KMOV shows him trying to reason to the crowd of 50 people who continue to racially abuse him.
But he was not alone in deciding he could not take it any more.
Daily Mail Online understands that at least five officers have left the force with the same number looking to quit.
Those who have gone include Wilson, Chief Thomas Jackson and officer Justin Cosmo.
Officers Rick Henke and William Mudd resigned after it emerged they had sent and received racist emails including one which said that President Obama would be a one term president because ‘what black man holds a steady job for four years’.
Those who remained said that the Brown shooting has changed everything and brought about accountability, but not in the way they expected.
One cop said: ‘I had an incident where some guy kicked in his girlfriend’s door. Right away it’s ‘Mike Brown’.
‘The boyfriend will say: ‘Are you gonna shoot me like Mike Brown’. Everything is viewed through that.’
Another officer said: ‘I think that everyone, every officer, started to second guess how they were handling something when they were interacting with someone and it started to escalate.
‘Officers who used to do things a certain way are now thinking: ‘What do I do next?’
‘It’s accountability but an officer is going to get hurt because they should have reacted more quickly than they did.’
The first officer added that personally he was worried about becoming the next Darren Wilson.
During an incident where he was chasing a suspect with a gun he got ‘scared’.
He said: ‘It wasn’t so much that I was going to shoot him because I knew I had a job to do. It was more what would happen if I shoot him?’
Back in August last year, few in Ferguson’s small police force of 53 officers could have thought they would be subject to such scrutiny.
But few would have thought that their response to events would have raised so many questions – Wilson’s actions aside.
Brown’s body was allowed to lie on the street with no cover over him for four hours after he was killed, something which the community took as a great sign of disrespect.
It emerged that Wilson was allowed to wash the blood off his hands after shooting Brown, and even processed some of the evidence himself.
Chief Thomas Jackson took four days to even issue a press release and nearly two months to apologize to Brown’s family.
Chief Jackson promised to release Wilson’s name, changed their minds and then did so after putting out CCTV footage of Brown which they showed him robbing a grocery store minutes before he was shot dead.
Then there was the military style response to the protests in which police clad in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters during nightly skirmishes that lasted more than a week.
Ferguson officers told Daily Mail Online that the situation was taken out of their hands and that the patrolling of the protests was done by St Louis County and City police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
They expressed frustration that they were not allowed to go out and police their own neighborhood at a time when they felt their knowledge of the community was needed more than ever.
In the days after the frontline officers were ‘a lot more on guard’, a former cop with the force said.
The officer said: ‘I think people were under a lot more stress. I think it makes you more leery out there, interacting with people. You keep people at a distance and that makes us look a lot more standoffish.’
The officer also reduced the number of traffic stops unless someone did something ‘blatant’ in front of them.
The officer said: ‘We changed from being a proactive police force to a reactive police force. That was a change.’
As the weeks wore on the Ferguson police department remained under siege. Night after night crowds would gather to chant and demand that Chief Jackson quit.
Inside the station the officers coped by not talking about it. They would come in, attend morning roll call and head out on their patrols.
They told each other: ‘I’m OK’ but the truth was that they were far from it.
In November a Grand Jury decided not to indict Wilson and Ferguson burned.
By the end of the night dozens of stores had been ransacked or vandalized and an entire city block was in ruins. One resident said it looked like ‘Ferganistan’
The final insult was that the National Guard had been deployed but were not out in force until it was too late because Missouri governor Jay Nixon had failed to give the order.
The city had not yet recovered from that when the Department of Justice released its report in March.
Wilson was cleared but the city, and the police force were condemned in one of the most scathing indictments of a law enforcement agency in modern American history.
It said that cops breached the constitutional rights of Ferguson citizens and unfairly targeted African Americans.
Residents were effectively being used as an ATM to finance the city, which relied on tickets for $2million of revenue, or 14 per cent of its entire budget.
One woman who illegally parked her car in 2007 ended up spending six days in jail and having to pay a $1,000 fine.
The report said: ‘Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue’.
The findings were all the more shocking because some 67 per cent of the population is of Ferguson is black.
Despite this they accounted for 85 per cent of vehicle stops between 2012 and 2014.
Blacks also made up 93 per cent of all arrests and 95 per cent of people who were jailed for more than two days were black.
At the time the report was written just three of 53 Ferguson police officers were black, even though two-thirds of the town’s 21,000 residents are African-American.
For those about whom the report was written, it was almost impossible to bear.
A serving Ferguson officer described the report as a ‘stab in the back’.
The cop said: ‘That’s not me. I don’t represent that. What the DOJ wrote I don’t represent that.’
A former officer said: ‘There are racist cops who work there. But to label the whole department racist?
‘No. I have seen things that made me raise my eyebrows but I’m not going to label the whole department racist. There are some people there who are extremely prejudiced, yes.’
Surprising the police officers who spoke to Daily Mail Online had broad sympathy for Chief Jackson, who quit after the Department of Justice report came out.
One described him as a ‘good chief who made sure we had all the equipment we needed’.
Another said: ‘I think he did the best that he could. He’s the type of chief that we needed and still need but because it “happened on his watch” it was decided he had to go. He’s not a great public figure but he’s a good officer.’
Perhaps even more surprisingly some even had sympathy for Wilson and one officer said it was a ‘lot to take for somebody his age’.
But a former officer said: ‘I think the majority of the white officers support Darren. Only Michael Brown and Darren Wilson know exactly what happened. I don’t think that Michael Brown should have been killed. I just don’t think he should have resorted to deadly force. ‘
Even 12 months on Daily Mail Online was told that training on race relations has yet to take place yet.
The issue has been that with sporadic protests going on all year there has never been an appropriate time to take officers off the street for training.
A former cop said: ‘There was no special guidance for how to deal with black people. Not while I was there’.
Ferguson City spokesman Jeff Small disputed this and said that there had been changes.
In a statement said: ‘Employees including those in the Ferguson Police Department have taken part in a variety of training sessions including bias and racial profiling. The training continues and will be part of ongoing practices within the City of Ferguson.’
He also said that all 50 officers out on the street are now equipped with body cameras with four dash cameras in police cars.
Small said: ‘The City of Ferguson is still in the process of reviewing the DOJ findings before we respond’.
Had Wilson been wearing a body camera the night of August 9th last year, things may have been very different, as the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio recently found out.
Footage released last month showed from former University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing’s body camera showed him fatally shooting an unarmed black motorist during a routine traffic stop.
The version in his police report contradicted what the footage showed. Tensing has now been fired and indicted for murder.
Equally, body cam evidence would have immediately nailed one of the key claims about Brown’s death as untrue – that he put his hands up and said ‘don’t shoot’, which led to the ‘hands up, don’t shoot protests’.
It was the DOJ’s report in March which finally established that he had not put his hands up or said the words attributed to him by a witness.
Meanwhile, among serving Ferguson officers the main concerned is what will happen this Sunday.
The force has a new interim chief, Andre Anderson, a black man who used to be a commander in Glendale, Arizona, and has embarked on a recruitment drive among minorities.
Whether that will be enough to stop the city burning again remains to be seen.
A serving Ferguson cop said: ‘Whenever we try to heal something else comes up. First it was the grand jury verdict, then it was the Department of Justice report. Now it’s the year anniversary.
‘I don’t want them to tear this city up for Mike Brown’.