Ferguson after-action report: Have lessons learned been applied?

The first step to applying and implementing the lessons learned of any after-action report is to read the report, which unfortunately rarely happens


“Have you read the Ferguson report?”

For the past five years, Gordon Graham has asked attendees of his regular presentations to police officers and police leaders this question. According to Graham, few hands are raised in response, reinforcing his concern that the lessons learned from the 164-page, “After Action Assessment of the Police Response to August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri,” are not being implemented.

The report came after a September 2014 request from Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department. The assessment team methodology included a content analysis of documents from the four core law enforcement agencies that responded to the civil unrest, analysis of news stories and social media posts, and more than 680 hours of confidential interviews with law enforcement personnel, community members, business owners, clergy, union leaders, researchers and protestors.

In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, a protester yells at police outside the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department during a demonstration sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, a protester yells at police outside the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department during a demonstration sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

In an opening letter to the report, Ron Davis, Director, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, writes:

This report summarizes the independent, objective and candid review of police activities for the 17 days following the death of Michael Brown. It delves into how the police managed the mass demonstrations in Ferguson and provides 48 findings and more than 100 lessons learned, which I believe will be of great benefit to the law enforcement field going forward.”

Davis also wrote in his introduction letter.

The failure to learn from our experiences – both our successes and setbacks – increases the likelihood of repeating mistakes and contributes to loss of public trust. In asking for this review, these leaders recognized that the truth often hurts, but selective ignorance is fatal to an organization.”

When Gordon Graham says, “this should be required reading for every police chief in the country” I decided I better find a copy and read the lessons learned from Ferguson. Reading the report in July 2020, I couldn’t help but review it within the context of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, riots and criminal looting, as well as nationwide calls for police reform, defunding and even dismantling of police departments. One striking difference to me is that in 2014 most of the protests and violence were in Ferguson. In the weeks since Floyd’s death, protests and riots have happened in cities around the world.

Much of the report seems predictive of recent events – communication problems between departments, lack of community trust, inconsistent policies, social media as an organizing and misinformation tool, and outside criminals transforming relatively peaceful daytime events into destructive and dangerous incidents.

For example, the immediate hours after Brown’s death were described in words that just as easily could have been written about the afternoon of Floyd’s death:

Beginning with the initial police response at the homicide scene, police actions were questioned and criticized by the public. The criticism was immediate, explicit, and vocal, and it was amplified by social media and national news coverage.”

An after-action report is a beginning not an end

After-action reports (AAR) often fall short because they are interpreted as the endpoint of an incident. A predictable set of lessons learned often emerge, whether the incident is an active shooter, fatal wildfire, or a mass transit mass casualty. Responders are told they need to:

Those lessons sound so familiar that we might as well autofill them into every after-action report.

The easy work will always be writing the lessons learned. The hard work is converting lessons learned into lessons applied.

Appendix A of the Ferguson report lists the assessment team’s findings and lessons learned. How many of these lessons learned have become lessons applied to your department? Perhaps your department has already implemented, reinforced, or retrained on policies and practices necessary to realize the lessons learned from Ferguson. If not, there is no better time than the present to review the lessons learned, assess how they match the current needs of your community and your department’s capability and begin the work of preventing a critical incident and preparing to respond to a critical incident, should one happen in your jurisdiction or a neighboring community.

In my opinion, the report contains too many lessons learned with no actionable recommendations for departments to assess, prioritize and implement the lessons. When considering the lessons learned of this report or other action reports it may be useful to sort the lessons learned into a timeframe in which they can be applied. When can the lesson learned be applied? Today/tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year?

For example, the lesson learned of Finding 15 is to change the practice of using a rifle scope to monitor protestors. Today you could review your department’s policy or procedure for overwatch and make sure officers have binoculars, UAS video, or mobile or fixed surveillance cameras for crowd monitoring rather than using a rifle scope.

Finding 15 reads:

FINDING 15. The overwatch tactic, in which police snipers took positions on top of tactical vehicles and used their rifle sights to monitor the crowd, was inappropriate as a crowd control measure. Further, it served only to exacerbate tensions between the protesters and the police.

LESSON LEARNED 15.1. The assessment team realizes that the overwatch tactic can be a valuable tool for law enforcement in this instance, however, it should not have been used. Overwatch is an inappropriate tactic for protest and protest-centric events.

The Ferguson after-action report found that the overwatch tactic was inappropriate as a crowd control measure. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
The Ferguson after-action report found that the overwatch tactic was inappropriate as a crowd control measure. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Other AAR findings might take months or years to implement. Lessons learned to conduct regional response training are commendable, but realistically take months to work into a training curriculum, budgeting and personnel scheduling. That doesn’t mean Finding 21 shouldn’t be implemented, just that the implementation horizon is longer.

FINDING 21. Limitations and variations in officer training on civil disobedience, de-escalation, and mutual aid negatively impacted the response to events in Ferguson.

LESSON LEARNED 21.1. Law enforcement agencies with mutual aid requests must conduct regional response training, to include regular regional tabletop critical incident or event exercises involving mutual aid responders, other first responders, and key community leaders.

There will be many after-action reports written in the months ahead about the arrest and death of George Floyd, as well as the major protests and riots in Minneapolis, New York City, Louisville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington DC and many other cities. If you are charged with writing an AAR or participating in an assessment team, leverage today’s digital technology tools to embed social content, as well as embed or link to audio and video from the incident. Use collaboration tools that allow readers to submit comments from their own experience or ask questions about implementing the lessons learned. Make sure your AAR includes additional content on practices, approaches or action steps to implement the lessons learned.

The Ferguson AAR executive summary concludes with this paragraph, which also feels familiar to any AAR, but is of continuing importance and relevance:

History informs us that a critical incident can happen anywhere and at any time. With this knowledge, law enforcement must always remember that the ability to respond to an incident effectively is formulated long before an incident occurs through investments in leadership, community engagement, training, and communication. Ferguson is a vivid reminder that law enforcement agencies must continually analyze their policing practices in relation to the communities they serve.”

NEXT: The AAR: An effective assessment tool for police

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