Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Please see below original text.
The chief of police for the Ferguson Police Department misled members of the media and the public when he asserted that his hand was forced in releasing surveillance footage that purported to show 18-year-old resident Michael Brown engaged in a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store minutes before he was fatally shot by a police officer.
Chief Thomas Jackson distributed copies of the surveillance tape at a press conference on Aug. 15 in tandem with the public release of the identity of the officer who was responsible for shooting Brown.
When questioned by members of the press about the tape — which apparently had nothing to do with the fatal shooting of the unarmed teenager — Jackson told reporters that he was legally obligated to release the tape because members of the media had submitted an open records requests for it.
“We’ve had this tape for a while, and we had to diligently review the information that was in the tape, determine if there was any other reason to keep it,” Jackson said at the press event. “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. We didn’t have good cause, any other reason not to release it under FOI.”
Jackson later said that the officer who fatally shot Brown — identified as Officer Darren Wilson — did not know that Brown had allegedly been involved in a robbery earlier in the day when the officer confronted Brown on a Ferguson road hours later. When asked by a reporter why the agency would release the surveillance tape, even though it appeared to have nothing to do with the fatal shooting of the teenager, Jackson replied: “Because you asked for it.”
Last month, TheBlot Magazine requested a copy of all open records requests made by members of the public — including journalists and news organizations — that specifically sought the release of the convenience store surveillance video. The logs, which were itself obtained under Missouri’s open records law, show only one journalist — Joel Currier with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — broadly requested any and all multimedia evidence “leading up to” Brown’s death on Aug. 9.
Other records that would have been subject to Currier’s request, including 9-1-1 call recordings and police dispatch tapes, have yet to be formally released by the agency.
The logs contradict Jackson’s claim that “a lot” of reporters had specifically “asked for” the robbery surveillance tape through open records requests before his agency released the footage. The documents raise more questions about why the video — which, by the chief’s own admission, was not related to the shooting death of the teenager — was released in the first place.
A Ferguson police spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
The Department of Justice had asked the Ferguson police department not to distribute a copy of the surveillance tape, according to a report by NBC News. DOJ officials confirmed they had a copy of the tape, but said they never considered releasing it, NBC said.
Shortly after the tape was released, the Brown family released a statement charging police with attempting to smear the character of the slain teenager.
“Michael Brown’s family is beyond outraged at the devious way the police chief has chosen to disseminate piecemeal information in a manner intended to assassinate the character of their son,” the family said in a statement. “It is no way transparent to release the still photographs alleged to be Michael Brown, and refuse to release the photographs of the officer that executed him.”
Family attorney Benjamin Crump echoed the same sentiment in a statement e-mailed to TheBlot early Friday morning.
“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,” Crump wrote. “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.”
Days of violent protests and looting plagued the community of Ferguson immediately after Brown’s death. Some attributed the violence to the militant response by the Ferguson Police Department, prompting the Missouri State Highway Patrol to assume security in the town.
Peaceful demonstrations were held shortly after the MSHP stepped in; however, violence reignited in Ferguson the evening after the surveillance tape was released.
“[Jackson] is inciting the community all over again,” Brown family attorney Anthony Gray said.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.
UPDATE, Saturday, Sept. 6, 5:03 p.m. The City of Ferguson now alleges that there are additional records related to Sunshine Law requests that were not disclosed to TheBlot.com. In a statement e-mailed to reporters at the Huffington Post on Saturday, City of Ferguson attorney Stephanie Karr said that “many requests were made verbally due to the fact that the City’s website and email were down at several points during that week” and that “city personnel cataloged all requests and treated them in the same manner as it would any Sunshine Law request.” Karr did not say whether any of the oral requests specified the surveillance video.When TheBlot filed its Sunshine Law request with the City of Ferguson, we specifically asked for, among other things, “logs created by the department in order to assist with the handling and fulfillment of open records requests.” A catalog of oral requests, the existence of which has now been made public, was not furnished to us by the City of Ferguson, even though it was specifically requested. We are working to find out why this is; so far, city officials have failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
UPDATE 2, Saturday, Sept. 6, 9:58 p.m.: Karr responded to a request for comment Saturday afternoon by denying the City of Ferguson had a log of verbal records requests.
“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 by e-mail. “That assumption is, quite simply, wrong and unrealistic.”
Karr’s statement to TheBlot appears to contradict one published earlier in the day by the Huffington Post.
“Many requests were made verbally due to the fact that the City’s website and email were down at several points during that week,” Karr told the website. “City personnel cataloged all requests and treated them in the same manner as it would any Sunshine Law request.”
TheBlot has sought clarification from Karr as to whether or not city employees did, in fact, catalog all verbal records requests as she told the Huffington Post and, if so, why that record was not delivered to us.