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Ferguson Police Emails Reveal 'Life is Very Rough' for Officers

In response to a records request, Ferguson officials told VICE News there are almost no police emails relating to Michael Brown due to 'computer difficulties' that occurred right after he was killed.
November 4, 2014, 2:15pm
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, police officers in Ferguson, Missouri feared that people in the community were "gunning" for them, and officers were having a "rough" time dealing with the news media, according to an email written by Assistant Police Chief Al Eickhoff.

Eickhoff's email was one of only seven internal emails the City of Ferguson turned over to VICE News in response to an open-records request filed in late September for records pertaining to Brown's death and the protests that immediately followed. For those seven emails, the City of Ferguson charged VICE News a fee of more than $1,200.

In a written request, we asked for any emails that contained keywords including Michael Brown, curfew, protest, National Guard, and violence. But according to the City of Ferguson, in the nearly two months between August 9, the day the unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and October 3, police and city officials did not write the name Michael Brown in a single email.

In his email, Eickhoff was responding to a series of questions sent to him and other police and city officials on October 3 by Devin James, who was contracted by the city for public relations services following the shooting. James had asked police officials for responses to a barrage of media queries he received about Brown's death, the Grand Jury investigation into the incident, the "rules" for protesting, police reports about the shooting, and the "stress" with which officers were contending.

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"Who can assist us with answers to these ASAP? 2nd request and media is not being patient," James wrote in the email sent to Eickhoff, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, city attorney Stephanie Karr, and four other officials.

Based on the email chain obtained by VICE News, Eickhoff is the only official who responded to James. He sent James an email in response to a question about a use of force report and the overall investigation into Brown's death:

Devin, St. Louis County is handling report/warrant application. That is what the Grand Jury is doing. The Grand Jury is the use of force. If the shooting is unjustified then he [Wilson] will be charged. Life is very rough for the officers having recordings in their face all the time, worrying who is out there gunning for them…. Eap [Employee Assistance Program] and good wives help with the stress. I am sure public perception is negative from the news media BUT the residents in Ferguson support us.

City Clerk Megan Asikainen told VICE News she was "surprised" that "there were seven emails matching your search criteria." She thought there would be fewer.

"All emails from August 9 through October 3 were searched," Asikainen said after we inquired about the small number of emails containing those keywords in light of Brown's killing and the unrest that followed. "There were several days following August 9 that the City did not have email capability at all. And, even after that, email capability was not up to par for several more days. To be quite frank, city officials could not rely on and could not utilize email as a timely and effective method of communication for some time following the initial server and computer difficulties."

Asikainen was on vacation and could not elaborate further on the nature of the server outage. Lawrence Miskel, the city's human resources manager, told VICE News that almost three months after the apparent email outage, he still does not know what caused it.

'For several days after August 9, City employees could not receive or send emails at all. Email has not been entirely reliable even to this day.'

"For several days after August 9, City employees could not receive or send emails at all," he said Monday. "Email has not been entirely reliable even to this day. So, if you are asking about the date that the City had a system that was functioning in the same manner and with the same reliability as prior to August 9, we are still not there."

The City of Ferguson stipulated that VICE News first pay a $2,000 deposit before the city's outside contractor, St. Louis-based Acumen Consulting, would initiate an email search of the city's server.

Other news organizations that sought records from the city were also told they would have to pay a hefty deposit. Last month, the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and CNN filed complaints with Missouri's attorney general over the high fees related to the state's Sunshine Law requests, saying that the fees "clearly appear to be an effort by city officials to discourage or even eliminate efforts by the media to continue its investigation into this incident."

Nanci Godner, press secretary for the state's attorney general, confirmed to VICE News that the office received three complaints about the fees. "I can let you know when a next step happens," Godner said on October 14. She has not responded to follow-up requests for comment.

It took five hours for Acumen to search for and retrieve the seven emails, according to a three-page worksheet Acumen President Robert Wagnon turned over to the city after the firm completed the email search. Wagnon did not respond to requests for comment about the email search.

Asikainen said Acumen searched email accounts of City Council members and members of the police department who have the rank of sergeant and above.

"We searched for emails coming from all police 'officials' — those having some command or supervisory authority — in accordance with your request," she added. "We also took the extra step of searching Darren Wilson's email account given that he is a focal point."

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One email the city turned over was sent by Ferguson City Manager John Shaw to Police Chief Thomas Jackson; James, the public relations consultant; Asikainen; and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. It appears to be a critique of a September 30 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story.

"This is just stupid," Shaw wrote the same day the story was published. "The title says 'Clergy join peaceful but noisy protest in Ferguson,' but then inside it states 'At one point, the police line pulled back after gunfire was heard.' This is just crazy what the Post is doing."

Jackson responded: "The Post knows the difference between peaceful gunfire and non-peaceful gunfire."

Neither Jackson nor Shaw responded to requests for comment.

An email sent late in the evening on September 22 to Jackson, Knowles, and seven other city officials by Mike Salant, a former city council member, criticized the recipients for canceling Streetfest, scheduled for September 26 and 27 due to a planned protest in the community.

"I don't know what to say, you are ALL letting the THUGS win," Salant wrote. "And NONE of you deserve your positions. Everyone that worked so hard to put together streetfest and the residents that were looking forward to going. I do understand keeping everyone safe. And you all know 99% of the protester [sic] are not from Ferguson. What you going to do when the Grand Jury come back with a decision that the protesters don't like or Darren [Wilson] gets acquitted. You going to run and hide."

Jackson responded to Salant the following day saying Salant's email was "disgusting."

"Our officers and officers from many other agencies have been facing daily protests and everything from insults to gunfire and fire bombs since August 9," he wrote. "And now you want to bring them back to face certain violence and possible injury to residents, protesters and police officers because you were looking forward to a PARTY??? You clearly do not understand 'keeping everyone safe'. I'm waiting for a single day without this nightmare."

In another email, dated September 29, James is providing talking points to Jackson who was scheduled for three separate interviews with CNN correspondents that day.

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"Topic: Let's have him calmly explain his feeling about the other night (night officer was shot and last night), let's talk about his real intention in going out in the crowd the night of the apology there, what went a little off (even if not his doing) and have a calm discussion bringing that moment into perspective," James wrote.

Some of the emails were redacted because they contained "operational guidelines" and "policies," the disclosure of which "would impair the ability to protect safety and security," according to Ferguson's city attorney. She charged VICE News $17.50 for the 10 minutes she spent reviewing and redacting the emails.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold