Harvard’s Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard said that while the militarization of police forces might be a good approach for a terrorist attack, the scene in Ferguson “shows that if misapplied, it can also lead to an escalation rather than a resolution of civil disturbances.”

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

The fumbles in Ferguson

long read

Crisis expert explains how mistakes in handling Missouri standoff helped to fuel rather than tame turmoil

The circumstances surrounding the Aug. 9 killing of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., have sparked nightly protests by outraged citizens, drawing international attention as violent clashes erupted between residents and militarized police patrolling the suburban streets. Accusations that police were harassing people or using excessive force — firing tear gas and stun grenades and pointing rifles at peaceful protesters and journalists — have further stoked tensions.

This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson amid concern that local and state officials had mishandled both the protests and the investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting death and that efforts by county police to protect the officer from public scrutiny indicate that officials cannot conduct a thorough and fair review of Brown’s killing. Holder has ordered federal prosecutors to investigate, with dozens of FBI agents interviewing witnesses and a federal medical examiner performing an autopsy on Brown’s body.

Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and the Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, teaches leadership and organizational strategy and is co-director of the Program on Crisis Leadership at HKS. Leonard spoke with the Gazette via email about the ongoing chaos in Ferguson and assessed the crisis-management response.

GAZETTE: How would you characterize what’s going on in Ferguson, Mo.? Are there comparable events?

LEONARD: We have seen heavy police presence in hard gear in American cities before. I recall the riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s, for example, and the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, which among other things involved the deployment of federal troops. Ferguson, however — as well as the deployment of tactical teams in Watertown after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — indicates a new level of militarization of police forces that seems to be without precedent. While this may be justifiable and a good approach in some circumstances (a terrorist attack, for example), I think Ferguson shows that if misapplied, it can also lead to an escalation rather than a resolution of civil disturbances.

GAZETTE: How unusual is it for the attorney general to get involved, and what does it tell you about what’s going on behind the scenes?

LEONARD: It is highly unusual for the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the United States to intercede personally in a specific enforcement matter. I think it signals a belief in the highest circles in Washington that the events in Ferguson are of critical national importance. And it signals (and is designed to signal) to all of those involved in the ongoing event — the investigation, the peacekeeping actions, the public relations, and so on — that the significance of this event goes far beyond the local domain in which it began.

GAZETTE: To what extent is the ongoing chaos a function of that original incident, and to what extent is it a result of ineffective crisis management?

LEONARD: I think you have to see it as a product of both. The original incident is tragic and emotionally intense, and in the absence of definitive information about what exactly happened (which will intrinsically take time to develop), it is fraught with issues and questions and ambiguities about who we are as a nation, about the extent of racism that may still be embedded in police and other institutions, about racial justice. It thus goes to the core of identity issues for our country and for our people as a whole, and for each of us in the various subgroups with which we self-identify. Identity issues — who are we, and how are we seen, and whether we are respected by others — are among the hottest issues we ever deal with. And the precipitating incident here instantly pushes all of those buttons.

Moreover, the nature of events like these is that definitive, agreed details about exactly what happened will be scant in the early days, which means that the situation will be fueled in part by rumor, innuendo, false reports, and small amounts of accurate information deeply intertwined with large amounts of misinformation. In such a setting, those so inclined — and there will be many — will be able to build their anger by selectively choosing which “facts” to believe. This, again, is not just predictable, it is a certainty. This accentuates the volatility of the event.

The nature of the initial event, then, is that it is intensely hot and potentially explosive. What it desperately needs, then, is de-escalating influences. Given how obviously hot the original incident was and is, the response to the protests appears to have been grievously misguided. It was entirely predictable that there would be a major reaction in the streets of Ferguson, and that the level of intensity on the part of different demonstrators would vary widely, ranging from peaceful vigils to active, angry protest and possibly beyond, to violent and destructive looting, all of which, in fact, have taken place. Some protesters are simply more willing and better able to contain their emotions and reactions than others.

Meeting that range of reactions with police officers in combat gear and armored vehicles is tantamount to further provocation, and sure enough it immediately escalated the situation by incensing some of the crowd. The situation called for calming and stabilizing influences and interventions. Confronting a crowd that is grieving the death of an unarmed teenager, whatever the exact circumstances of his death were, with a phalanx of police officers pointing military weapons and firing tear gas in the direction of the crowd from behind or within armored vehicles and wearing combat body armor is anything but calming. Trying to intimidate an angry crowd into submission by visibly threatening extreme violence is a recipe for the disaster we have been watching unfold.

GAZETTE: What have been some of the biggest missteps by the various law-enforcement agencies involved, and what should they do to calm tensions?

LEONARD: The initial rapid escalation in the early stages of the protest appears to have (literally) stoked the fires of those most prone to violence … and deeply angered many who would have been inclined toward being peaceful. Seeing the pictures of heavily armed police in Ferguson early in this event, I was reminded of the positive example of Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who commanded the U.S. Army troops that arrived in New Orleans four days after Hurricane Katrina. Seeing troops carrying their weapons at the ready, Lt. Gen. Honoré yelled at them, “Weapons down, dammit!” “Weapons down” would be a good admonition in Ferguson. For example, why are police officers pointing their weapons at or in the general direction of the protester in this photo? What deadly threat to the police or others justified the weapons-ready posture of this group of police officers?

I would guess that this approach results from a mis-deployment rather than from the intentional use of an excessive threat of force (assuming there is no justification for multiple semi-automatic or possibly automatic rifles to be pointed at or in the direction of this demonstrator). This group of police officers looks to be a tactical team. SWAT teams are generally used in situations where there is a significant prospect of violent resistance (for example, in entering a residence to arrest a violent criminal who is expected to be armed). In such circumstances, weapons at the ready is appropriate, and that is how SWAT teams train. Thus, weapons-ready may just be the standard protocol for this team, but deployed here in a circumstance in which it may not be appropriate.

What the situation in Ferguson now desperately needs is a weapons-down posture by police, to the maximum extent possible and in every way possible — and concerted, consistent efforts to de-escalate tensions and emotions. Much of this will inevitably have to come from the leadership inside the community. Leaders from outside may be able to help support those inside, but the community will have greatest trust in their own existing local leadership. None of this can be imposed from outside. Police and others need to do everything they can to cooperate with and support local leaders in trying to contain the rage that the initial event and the subsequent escalation have produced.

GAZETTE: It took several days of violence for state and local political officials, including the Missouri governor, the mayor of Ferguson, and various congressional representatives, to get involved in trying to quell the conflict between police and protesters. Did that leadership void contribute to the unrest? What should they have done and when?

LEONARD: Given that it was nearly instantly predictable that this incident could erupt, leaders at practically all levels should immediately have adopted a forward-leaning stance, and they should have formed into a group to work on the situation together. Instead, the situation evolved for several days before leaders intervened. And even then it appears that there was at best too little coordination among the various individuals and entities involved. This is both a substantive event (the shooting and death of Michael Brown, and the subsequent demonstrations, rioting, and looting) and a perceptions-based event that is driven by formal as well as social media, rumors, and formal communications. What I believe we have still not seen is the formation of a collaborative “unified command” effort involving law enforcement, investigative, political, and community leaders coherently organized and engaged in a joint effort to manage and de-escalate the situation.

Decisions about what information to release have been seen by the community as attempts to blame what the community sees as the innocent victim; those decisions seem to have been clumsy and ineffective and poorly thought out. A more concerted and strategic view needs to be formed that can take account of all relevant aspects of the situation and that has control over all aspects of the public response — from the release of information to the deployment of law enforcement in the area. This should have happened, or at least begun almost immediately. Instead, different groups and organizations and leaders have joined piecemeal, and still (to my knowledge) have not formed a comprehensive collaborative group that can most effectively manage the way forward.

GAZETTE: The decision to release incriminating video and medical details about the shooting victim, but not promptly release key information about his fatal shooting, like the officer’s name, the circumstances surrounding the shooting, or the results from the first autopsy, appears to have fueled much of the outrage and protests. How vital is managing the quality and flow of information in preventing a single event from growing into something much larger and more damaging?

LEONARD: Managing the flow of information is crucial to the management of the overall event, because the information directly affects the emotions that are at root driving the situation (and, especially, driving the most undesirable behaviors in the situation). Again, this is one of the reasons why the formation, early in the event, of a unified command involving all of the relevant parties involved in the event — and drawing community leaders into those discussions — would have been so important.

An excruciating challenge in events of this type is that a great deal of information must be protected so as not to compromise the investigation if a prosecution may eventually result from it. Haphazard or uncontrolled release of information could easily prejudice the ability to bring charges later, if that should be appropriate. This is difficult for communities to understand, and it would have been a good reason to pull together a meeting of community leaders very early on to begin a dialogue about what could and could not be released.

But the necessary cloak of secrecy is also often used as an excuse not to release information that is seen as damaging to police even if it could be released without prejudice to the investigative process. And communities know this, so they are suspicious of “I’m sorry, but we can’t disclose that” as it relates to police behavior. And they are especially suspicious when, as here, selective information is released about the victim but not about police actions. In this instance, what was disclosed and what was withheld and the timing of the disclosure appeared to the community to have been very self-serving on the part of the police — when what was needed was disclosure that seemed to be an honest attempt to release everything possible that was known, so long as it would not compromise the ongoing investigation.

GAZETTE: The apparent police harassment of the media, including the arrests of print, broadcast, and photo journalists who are later released without charges, seems to lend credibility to the perception that law enforcement is intent on shutting down any criticism or outside scrutiny of their actions. Is this strategy typically effective and, if not, what could be the reason for engaging in it?

LEONARD: Police harassment of the media in this event has been both appalling and deeply stupid. No street-level police officer or higher-level police official in his or her right mind would imagine that harassing journalists — for example, arresting and then releasing them — is going to shut down criticism or reduce outside scrutiny. It is overwhelmingly likely to have exactly the opposite effect, increasing media attention and scrutiny and reducing any sympathy some journalists might otherwise have had for the difficult position that police find themselves in.

I therefore have trouble imagining that there has been a systematic and intentional campaign to intimidate the press because such a policy would so obviously and so certainly backfire. I think it is far more likely that the incidents we have seen have been the product of a combination of poor training of police officers and deep frustration, fatigue, and anger on the part of police officers deployed for long hours in this difficult and ugly situation.

During the Occupy movement, when largely peaceful protesters occupied public spaces, often for considerable periods of time and frequently in violation of local ordinances, many police departments decided that trying to enforce every ordinance (immediately pushing protesters out of public parks, for example) would escalate rather than improve the situation, and they tolerated some “criminal” behavior, judging it as the better part of valor to let things evolve more slowly and peaceably (which, for the most part, they did). During this time, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey had the First Amendment read at roll calls in police stations and occasionally over the police radio.

At our best, in this country, we protect journalists in the exercise of their First Amendment duties. We do this for moral reasons. The oath of office, sworn by every police officer, is to uphold and defend the Constitution, which prominently includes the First Amendment, and if the moral reasons do not seem to some to be enough, then police should do this for the prudential reason that harassing the press will reliably create more negative coverage of the police

I think the harassment of journalists in Ferguson, like the excessive display of weapons and the too-common weapons-ready posture, mainly reflects poor training and a breakdown of discipline under pressure and frustration. Police officers don’t have to like the press, but they do need to understand that reporting on police activities is not a crime, and that they as police officers have a duty to protect journalists in the exercise of their First Amendment freedoms. A journalist should have to go a long way to get him- or herself arrested.