Mid-Missouri police strategies examined in wake of Ferguson

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COLUMBIA - KOMU8 investigated protest policies and military equipment in mid-Missouri after speaking with Ferguson residents about the most violent nights they encountered during the city's unrest following the death of Michael Brown.

Protests and some rioting sparked a national discussion about how to best handle civil disturbances and the use of military equipment by local law enforcement agencies.

Senator McCaskill spearheaded a Senate hearing in August of this year to discuss the militarization of police departments across the nation. Two weeks later, the Justice Department launched an investigation on the practices of police in Ferguson.

The following maps show what civil disturbance policies are in place across the state. The maps below also outlines which cities and counties have law enforcement agencies with armored vehicles and tear gas.

The county map below outlines which counties have a disturbance policy (marked in green), and which counties do not (marked in red).

Thirteen out of seventeen of the police and sheriff's departments we contacted do not have a policy for protests. Of the thirteen departments without a policy, Columbia and Jefferson City follow a set of regulations for managing crowd control and civil disturbances.

The Jefferson City Police Department uses the conduct and critical incident and control regulations of the agency to manage civil disturbances.

Jefferson City Police Chief Doug Shoemaker said the department looks at every protest separately.

"There are issues in law enforcement where you have to be able to evolve quickly and you have to be able to adapt and provide personnel," he said.

The city often collaborates with other agencies to address issues in the area and Shoemaker said there is a general communication and courtesy guidelines in place.

In Ferguson, how different law enforcement agencies worked together or not became a topic of controversy, but Shoemaker said his department's stance would help avoid that. 

"It's that background of working together and talking ahead of time to understand what their needs are and our needs are and how we can help each other," he said.

Shoemaker said the Jefferson City Police Department attempts to communicate with demonstrators before protests, but it is impossible to fully anticipate what might happen.

"We have to prepare adequately for the 'what ifs' anymore with demonstrations," Shoemaker said. "I think every law enforcement agency across the country has to prepare for that. No agency is completely prepared for anything that could possibly happen."

Of the three counties KOMU 8 News contacted, the Cole County Sheriffs Department is the only one with a policy in place. Officials last reevaluated the policy in 1998.

Captain John Wheeler said, "We are currently reviewing it due to recent events."

He said the department wants to make a point not to deny peaceful demonstrators their first amendment rights.

Patricia Bynes, Democratic Committeewoman of Ferguson Township, said she witnessed how the Ferguson protests escalated on both ends.

"It got angrier, it got louder, it got more aggressive. At the same time, also the officers - they got more aggressive and their response seemed to be much more militarized then what you would except from a police force," she said.

Bynes said the atmosphere shifted when law enforcement went from using riot gear (such as batons and shields) to SWAT gear (which included rifles and armored vehicles).

"We don't expect them to not protect themselves. But you can create a very hostile environment just based off of response," said Bynes.

Jeremiah Hunter, CPD's assistant chief of the Operations Support Bureau, has served on the SWAT team for seven years.

He said SWAT units and riot units carry out different missions.

"Riot unit or a riot civil unrest team is specifically for a civil unrest and to bring order back to a chaotic situation," Hunter said. "When the SWAT team is activated it rises to a new level," Hunter said.

Hunter also said the gear and equipment is strictly used for safety.

"It may look militaristic... you would want to be full protected just as much as I think you would want your officers to be protected when they put themselves in that situation," Hunter said.

The Columbia PD SWAT team has the resources to train a couple of time a month, he said.

"We have to keep those priorities in line, the innocent people, the victims and the suspects, we can't put ourselves above those. We can't mess up those priorities. They have to stay in order for us to effectively do our part," said Hunter.

Hunter said serving on a SWAT team is a large responsibility.

"If a big incident is going to happen here in Columbia, and the expectation is that we are going to prepare for that, we have to have the ability to coordinate and speak the same language," Hunter said.

Bynes said she believes miscommunication was a key component of the Ferguson unrest and the results shouldn't be taken lightly.

"We have a really good case study for other cities and government what to do, how to handle these situations. So, if they're not already preparing for things like this, they should," she said.

The city of Fulton and the city of Ferguson denied KOMU 8 News' request for information for this report.