FERGUSON, Mo — Two police officers standing guard outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police department were shot early Thursday in what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called an “ambush,” spurring a manhunt for the person or persons who directed gunfire at the line of officers.
“We could have buried two police officers,” Belmar told reporters. “… I feel very confident that whoever did this … came there for whatever nefarious reason that it was.”
The shots rang out shortly after midnight, at the end of a protest against the maligned Ferguson Police Department, which has been under fire ever since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown last August, and more recently since the release of a scathing Justice Department report documenting a pattern of racial discrimination.
While the demonstrators’ focus was the Ferguson department, neither of the wounded officers is from that St. Louis suburb.
One of them is from nearby Webster Groves. The officer — a 32-year-old with seven years experience — was shot at the high point of his cheek, just under his right eye, Belmar said. The bullet that hit him was still lodged behind his ear as of late Thursday morning.
The other wounded officer was hit in the shoulder and the bullet came out the middle of his back, Belmar said. He is a 41-year-old from St. Louis County Police who has been in law enforcement for the past 14 years.
The officers — who were treated and released from St. Louis’ Barnes Jewish Hospital, according to the St. Louis County Police’s Facebook page — were standing next to each other when they were shot, Belmar said.
No suspect or suspects have been named, though Belmar did say that “several people … have been very forthright with” investigators and shell casings that could be tied to the shooting have been recovered.
Law enforcement officers converged on a home late Thursday morning in Ferguson as part of the investigation into the shooting, St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said.
It was not clear what connection, if any, the shooter or shooters had to Wednesday night’s protest.
Still, Belmar noted that this isn’t the first time gunshots have rung out in and around demonstration sites since the protests began in August. This is the first time, though, that an officer has been hit.
“I think it’s a miracle that we haven’t had any instances similar to this over the summer and fall, (given) the amount of gunfire,” said the chief.
At the peak of the demonstration, some 150 protesters were gathered Wednesday night in front of the Ferguson police station, Belmar said. That number had dropped by about half, with the chants over, when the officers were shot just after midnight.
‘Muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away’
Witnesses said the shots came from a hill a distance away from the protest that overlooks the station. Belmar said officers saw “muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away.”
One demonstrator, DeRay McKeeson, told CNN he has no “indication that leads me to believe that this was a protester who did it,” saying he and fellow protesters believe in nonviolence.
Yet Belmar believes someone targeted the police.
“These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers,” he said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — who visited Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting and the unrest that spurred — called the police shootings “a cowardly act” and “heinous assault (that) was inexcusable and repugnant.”
“I condemn violence against any public safety officials in the strongest terms,” Holder said, “and the Department of Justice will never accept any threats or violence directed at those who serve and protect our communities.”
From calm to chaos
For some protesters, Wednesday was a day to celebrate: They’d called for Jackson’s resignation for months, and finally it was happening.
But for others, it was not enough. They demanded more changes, including disbanding the entire police department and the resignation of Mayor James Knowles. The now familiar racial overtones hung over the protests, a result of the fact that Wilson is white while Brown was black, as well as the U.S. Justice Department report that found a pattern of racial discrimination in the Ferguson Police Department.
Some chanted, “Racist cops have got to go.” Others held signs with slogans like “They don’t really care about us!” and “Black lives matter.”
“It was a great group (with) great, great energy,” protester Markus Loehrer said.
Law enforcement personnel from multiple departments around the area stood in front, as they have on many other nights the past few months.
Whatever the demonstrators’ mindset, they turned out in the highest numbers since November, when a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to press any charges against Wilson. Still, the crowd was relatively small compared to the peak of the protests right after Brown’s death.
Those still there just after midnight were starting to leave when gunfire erupted “no less than 100 feet” away from the crowd of protesters, Kayla Reed said.
McKeeson, who was at the base of the hill where he and others say the bullets came from, heard about four shots total.
Several police gathered around their wounded comrades, while others took cover wherever they could and drew their guns, as seen in photos taken outside the police department by the St. Louis American, a CNN affiliate.
“It was kind of shocking to see this armed phalanx of officers to immediately pull their weapons,” Loehrer said.
Chief: ‘Very dangerous environment’ for police
As much as McKeeson and others continue to demand more changes in and around Ferguson, he said that nothing can justify the shooting.
“We don’t advocate violence toward the police, (just as) we don’t advocate violence from the police toward unarmed people,” he told CNN. “We can live in a world where people are not getting killed, whether the police are killing them or people are shooting at the police.”
Loehrer expressed worries the shooting will undercut the protesters’ message against discrimination and violence.
“It’s a shame that somebody had to take advantage of this great group,” he said, “to do something so despicable.”
Belmar said police have been fortunate that such a shooting hasn’t happened sooner.
“But I have said all along that we cannot sustain this forever without problems,” the county police chief said. “That’s not an indictment on everybody that’s out there, certainly expressing their First Amendment rights. But we have seen, in law enforcement, that this is a very, very, very dangerous environment for the officers to work in.”
Jackson’s resignation is the latest fallout from the damning Justice Department report that cited widespread and systemic discrimination against blacks by the Ferguson police and court system.
City Manager John Shaw also resigned after the report, as did two police officers. And the city’s top court clerk was fired for sending racist emails.
The police chief’s resignation will go into effect March 19, Jackson said, to “provide for an orderly transition of command.”
Reed, one of the protesters, suggested that the demonstrations won’t stop just because Jackson is on his way out.
“We aren’t satisfied with this,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not what total justice looks like in Ferguson.”
After announcing his resignation, Jackson said he was encouraged by the report’s conclusion, which said Ferguson “has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement.”
“We agree that Ferguson can do the tough work to see this through and emerge the best small town it can be,” he said.