Day after two cops shot, about 200 protesters gather outside Ferguson Police Dept.
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — About 200 protesters were marching, chanting and beating drums in the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department Thursday night.
Some were demanding the resignation of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. Others carried signs that said, “Justice for Mike,” a reference to 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb in August.
Roughly 20 officers were visible outside the station. At one point, several walked through the crowd and asked the protesters to clear the streets.
A day earlier, two police officers were shot during a protest at the same location.
Earlier, about 50 people gathered at a public plaza in downtown Ferguson near the police station for a vigil Thursday night.
The group sang spirituals and prayed for peace as the St. Louis suburb seeks changes in the wake of a withering Justice Department report on racial bias in its law enforcement practices.
Speakers, including several members of the state’s Ferguson Commission, expressed sympathies for two police officers who were shot during a protest a night earlier outside of the police department.
And they reiterated their resolve to continue fighting for systemic change more than seven months after the shooting death of black, unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
“We will not be derailed in the pursuit of justice by anybody or anything that wants to get in our way,” the Rev. Traci Blackmon said, her voice cracking with emotion as she spoke.
With tensions running high after the shooting of two officers in Ferguson, state and county police took over security for protests in the St. Louis suburb Thursday.
St. Louis County Police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol are assuming “command of the security detail regarding protests,” St. Louis County Police said, while Ferguson Police will remain responsible for “routine policing services” in the city.
The takeover came less than a day after two police officers standing guard outside Ferguson police headquarters were shot in what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called an “ambush,” spurring a manhunt for those responsible for targeting 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.”
Belmar said several people “have been very forthright” with investigators, but authorities haven’t released the names of any possible suspects.
Investigators believe they have identified two people they want to question in the shooting, and one of them might be the shooter, a law enforcement official said. Police are also trying to find anyone who may have helped the shooter get away.
‘A very tense situation’
This isn’t the first time that county police and state troopers have stepped in to handle protest security.
When clashes between police and protesters boiled over last year, Missouri’s governor declared a state of emergency and tapped the State Highway Patrol to take over. After that emergency declaration expired in December, Ferguson Police resumed command of protest security. Officers from other agencies have continued to provide backup at larger protests.
At a candlelight vigil Thursday night near the scene of the shooting, religious leaders led prayers for the wounded police officers and protesters.
This time, Jeff Roorda of the St. Louis Police Officers Association said, the security situation on the streets is different.
“It’s a very tense situation, as you can well imagine,” he said. “In my communications as a union official with police commanders, I’ve been assured that tactics will be different tonight. I assume that means not only more officers, but a wider perimeter, with coverage, perhaps, of these blind spots from which the shots were fired last night.”
‘Muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away’
Shots rang from a hill overlooking the station out shortly after midnight Wednesday, at the end of a protest against the Ferguson Police Department.
Officers saw “muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away,” Belmar said.
Protesters have disavowed any ties to the shooting, saying the demonstrators believe in nonviolence.
“As the protest was dying down, someone, somewhere got violent. Now who they were and what group they were affiliated with, we don’t know,” said Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman. “In no way are they representative of the thousands of people…who have been protesting.”
Belmar believes someone targeted the police, who have faced heated criticism for months, for a reason. “These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers,” he said.
That department has been under fire since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, shot and killed black teen Michael Brown in August, and more recently since a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report came out documenting a pattern of racial discrimination. Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned from his post Wednesday.
While the demonstrators’ focus was Ferguson, neither of the wounded officers works in that St. Louis suburb’s Police Department.
One is from Webster Groves, a city about 13 miles south of Ferguson. 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 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.
Both men were treated and released from St. Louis’ Barnes Jewish Hospital.
‘This was a damn punk’
Brown’s parents condemned the shooting as “senseless,” saying such violence against law enforcement “will not be tolerated.”
So did the White House, with a tweet signed with President Barack Obama’s initials offering prayers for the wounded officers and calling “violence against police … unacceptable.”
And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting and unrest that spurred, decried what happened as a “heinous and cowardly (and) repugnant attack.”
“What happened last night was a pure ambush,” Holder said. “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk who was trying to sow discord.”
3 questioned by investigators
Iresha Turner says police banged on her door in the middle of the night.
“I opened the door and stood back. I look at my chest, there’s a red dot on it,” she said. “I have my hands up, start crying. I said, ‘please, don’t shoot me.”
Turner was one of three people who were questioned for hours by investigators Thursday and eventually released.
But they never saw the shooting and had no idea who opened fire, she said. Turner thinks police questioned her because she was in a car of people who sped away after the shooting — not because they had anything to do with it, she said, but because they were scared after hearing gunshots.
It’s not known what connection, if any, the shooter or shooters had to Wednesday night’s protest.
Protester: Before shooting, there was ‘great energy’
One irony is that, 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. That’s why they congregated in Ferguson, to demand changes like disbanding the city’s entire Police Department and ousting Mayor James Knowles.