(CNN) — Two police officers standing guard outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police department were shot early Thursday morning, spurring a manhunt for those responsible and stirring questions about what’s next for protesters who have been a constant presence in the city since Michael Brown’s death in August.
Dozens of demonstrators came out again on Wednesday night, reacting to the announcement hours earlier of Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation. The few who remained were dispersing when shots rang out just after midnight — fired from a hill a distance away from where the protesters had gathered, according to witnesses.
DeRay McKesson 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 St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar believes someone targeted the police.
“These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers,” he said.
The Ferguson Police Department has been the focus of protests since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, fatally shot Brown on August 9 — after which a local grand jury declined to indict Wilson on any charges and federal prosecutors decided not to press civil rights charges.
Neither of the two officers shot early Thursday, however, was with the Ferguson police.
One, a 14-year veteran of the St. Louis County Police Department, was shot in the shoulder. The other, a 7-year veteran of the Webster Groves Police Department, was struck in the face, Belmar said.
Both officers were in serious condition Thursday morning. Authorities described their injuries as non-life threatening.
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 decided not to press any charges against Wilson. Still, the crowd was relatively small compared to the peak of the protests in the immediate aftermath of 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.
CNN’s Sara Sidner, Catherine E. Shoichet, Don Lemon and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.