Officials with the City of Ferguson, Mo., countered a report published Friday by TheBlot Magazine that revealed the city’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, misled members of the public when he claimed journalists had forced him to release controversial surveillance footage showing 18-year-old Michael Brown engaged in an alleged burglary at a convenience store minutes before he was shot last month.
The surveillance footage released by police on Aug. 15 purported to show Brown stealing tobacco products from a convenience store six days earlier. The alleged strong-arm robbery took place on Aug. 9, mere minutes before Brown was shot by a Ferguson police officer in a separate traffic incident.
The two events were not related, Jackson said, but the video depicting Brown at the store had to be released because “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.”
When asked by a reporter why the tape was released, even though the events were not related, Jackson responded: “Because you asked for it.”
City officials initially declined to comment for our story, but Ferguson city attorney Stephanie Karr later opened up to reporters at The Huffington Post after they, and others, published stories of their own based on TheBlot’s reporting.
Karr told The Huffington Post that many records requests were made verbally after the Aug. 9 incident in part because the city’s computer systems had fallen victim to a cyberattack.
“Within days of the tragic events on August 9, the City of Ferguson began receiving multiple requests for information and documents,” Karr told the website. “While some of these requests were made in writing, many requests were made verbally due to the fact that the City’s website and email were down at several points during that week. City personnel cataloged all requests and treated them in the same manner as it would any Sunshine Law request.”
Karr contradicted herself in a statement to TheBlot on Saturday by saying no catalog of verbal record requests exist, and that cataloging every request — general or otherwise — submitted to city officials since the Aug. 9 incident was beyond the ability of Ferguson employees.
“You assume that the Custodian of Records, somehow, logged every single question, statement or request for information, verbal or otherwise, made to every single police officer, city employee, consultant, appointed official or elected official,” Karr told TheBlot. “That assumption is, quite simply, wrong and unrealistic.”
A further review of more than 230 pages of open records requests submitted by journalists, news organizations and other members of the public found that, in fact, Ferguson officials did catalog many verbal requests for records — but only days after the police department made the surveillance video public.
None of the verbal or hand-written requests catalogued by city officials specifically mention the surveillance footage. The requests mostly dealt with records pertaining to Officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Brown, whose name was released in tandem with the surveillance tape.
Journalists did electronically file requests seeking a copy of the surveillance footage once it had been made public. In some cases, members of the media found it difficult to obtain a copy of the tape. Two separate requests filed by Al Jazeera America employees apparently went unfulfilled for days; numerous documents show the journalists asking city officials for an electronic copy of the footage.
The documents also reveal chaos and confusion surrounding the tiny city’s attempt to deal with a sudden surge in media requests for information.
More than two dozen pages show city officials treated routine questions from reporters as requests for records under Missouri’s Sunshine law — even if reporters hadn’t formally filed an open records request, and often in cases where the information sought had nothing to do with records.
An e-mail from CBS News journalist Ryan Corsaro asking the Ferguson police department to help verify video of Wilson obtained by The Associated Press was treated as an open records request, even though Corsaro never asked for records. Another message from CBS journalist Andy Garcia inquiring about contact information for Wilson’s attorney was also treated as a records request.
The city reacted similarly when it received questions from reporters at The Washington Post, Los Angeles Daily News, Bloomberg, NBC News and FOX News channel. In other cases, city officials seems confused as to whether or not a reporter’s question qualified as a request for records.
On Aug. 19, Frances Robles, a reporter at The New York Times, asked Ferguson police spokesperson Timothy Zoll by e-mail if he could provide more information on injuries that Wilson allegedly sustained during his confrontation with Brown. Zoll forwarded it to a public relations consultant hired by the city to handle media inquiries. That consultant, Denise Bentele, forwarded the message to Karr and asked: “Thoughts on these?”
It is unclear if Robles ever received a response to her inquiry, although the information did not appear in a Times profile on Wilson published several days later. In a separate e-mail to Zoll, the reporter expressed frustration at not being able to get her request for police policy records through to city officials. “I have received no response from the city’s clerk office,” Robles wrote. “This particular information should be easy to supply.”
Brendan O’Brien, a general assignment reporter with Thomson Reuters, also had difficulty in reaching city officials.
“I am trying to request records from the city, and no one, including John Shaw, the city’s manager, has gotten back to me,” O’Brien wrote. The reporter later filed a formal request by e-mail, and at least one document shows city officials heard O’Brien’s voicemail days later and considered it to be a verbal request for records.
Most of the media requests filed after Aug. 15 centered on Wilson’s police record, not Brown or the surveillance tape. And none of the documented requests submitted before Aug. 15 specifically mentioned the surveillance tape at all, even though the police chief claimed he had received “a lot” of “FOIA requests” for the tape from the press. The release prompted some to charge the agency with attempting to smear the reputation of the slain teenager.
“The reports of the Ferguson Police Chief’s deliberate misleading account about the basis for his release of the video tape is very troubling to Michael Brown’s family,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney representing Brown’s family, told TheBlot last week. “It follows a disturbing pattern of behavior by the Ferguson Police Department since this tragedy occurred. This simply serves as another example of why many in the Ferguson community lack trust in all of the local law enforcement officials and the grand jury process, in general and Chief Jackson, in particular.”
Shortly after the incident, protesters took to the streets in Ferguson to demonstrate against perceived racial inequality and law enforcement abuse in their community. Police were criticized for responding to protesters with military gear, including combat garb and armored vehicles.
The response prompted a wave of unrest in the city, with several nights of looting reported. Calm was restored shortly after Missouri’s governor announced that state police would assume jurisdiction over Ferguson, but violence resumed after Ferguson police released the surveillance tape against the wishes of state police and the Department of Justice.
Last week, the DOJ announced the start of a sweeping civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
“The Department of Justice is working across the nation to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, constitutional and free of bias,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday. “The interventions in Missouri are an important part of that commitment.”
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.