A St. Louis County official issued a state of emergency Monday, following a pair of shootings the night before in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson as protesters marked the anniversary of the police shooting death of Michael Brown.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar is taking control of policing in and around Ferguson under the state of emergency, which was issued by County Executive Steve Stenger.
Since the death of Mr. Brown, a black man, at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer, the subjects of racial inequality and policing have become a fixture in the national discourse. A variety of attempts have been made across the country to address those issues, and in Ferguson itself, community members said they were starting to see some positive changes in the city and its police force.
After years of racial inequality in the city, perpetuated by institutions including the municipal court and police force, Ferguson installed a new interim police chief and a new interim city manager. Residents said they were noticing changes in police conduct.
But the new shootings – which resulted in one black suspect being critically wounded – are putting to the test the strides that Ferguson has made. And some residents are wondering whether the apparent changes in Ferguson may be only temporary, like the “interim” tags on the new senior officials.
“I don’t think you can judge people on political victories a year out,” says Brendan Roediger, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law.
“The answer is Ferguson now is largely the same as it was a year ago,” he adds. “The difference is now people are fighting.”
A focus of reform has been the Ferguson Police Department, and in the wake of the new shootings, community members and activists are now questioning whether changes at the top have led to changes on the ground.
The department has instituted a range of reforms since the US Justice Department released a scathing report in March, finding that police for years had targeted minorities in the town with tickets and fines to boost municipal revenues. The report also criticized the department for an overaggressive response to protests after Brown’s shooting.
Department officers are now receiving de-escalation and anti-bias training, Reuters reported, and are trying to spend more time at community events. Officers are also inviting teens on “ride-alongs” to learn more about what policing involves.
Mary Chandler, a black Ferguson resident in her 30s, told Reuters that she had seen a “180-degree change” for the better in the city’s police.
“It used to be aggression, zero tolerance,” she said. “Now they are more tolerant. They are listening to us.”
But residents have also spoken of lingering fears and distrust of police, and the new shootings appear to have reopened old wounds.
One shooting began as Andre Anderson, the FPD’s acting chief, spoke to reporters near where the center of protests have been ever since Brown’s death. “We’re trying to work with the community. We’re explaining to them their rights, and we just want to be as patient as possible,” he told a group of reporters Sunday night.
A second later, shots could be heard near the press conference. Four plainclothes detectives with the St. Louis County police – who were supporting the FPD at the protests – pulled up in an unmarked vehicle to confront a suspect, who “immediately turned and began firing” at the vehicle, St. Louis County police said in a press release. The two groups exchanged more gunfire, the press release said, and the suspect was shot multiple times. The suspect was later transported to a hospital in “critical, unstable” condition.
The four detectives involved in the shooting have between six and 12 years of experience, St. Louis County Police Chief Belmar said. They have been placed on administrative leave.
“These were criminals; they weren’t protesters,” he said of those who instigated the shooting. “There is a small group of people out there that are intent on making sure that we don’t have peace that prevails.”
In the other incident, two teenagers were shot in a drive-by shooting at 2:15 a.m. Monday near a memorial for Brown on Canfield Drive. The victims are expected to survive, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Three St. Louis County police officers were also injured in the overnight events. Two were pepper-sprayed by protesters, and a third was hit in the face by a rock.
While condemning the outburst of violence, local activists were critical of both the presence of the plainclothes officers and the subsequent police response.
Belmar told reporters that the plainclothes detectives, who weren’t wearing body cameras, were able to be “more fluid and agile” in responding to threats. Kayla Reed, a field organizer for the Organization for Black Struggle, said in a statement that using plainclothes officers for a protest was “a poor decision.”
“After a year of protest and conversation around police accountability, having plainclothes officers without body cameras and proper identification in the protest setting leaves us with only the officer’s account of the incident, which is clearly problematic,” she added.
Tyrone Harris Sr. told the Post-Dispatch that the man shot by police was his son, 18-year-old Tyrone Harris Jr. The older Harris told CBS affiliate KMOV that his son was not armed and that he had been “running away from the situation, and police ended up shooting him.” He added that his son was in “the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The elder Mr. Harris told the Post-Dispatch that his son was “real close” with Brown. Both had attended Normandy High School in St. Louis.
“We think there’s a lot more to this than what’s being said,” he told the paper.
St. Louis County prosecutors on Monday filed 10 charges against Harris, including one involving firearms and first-degree assault on a law enforcement officer. All the charges are felonies.
Hours later after that shooting, officers began threatening to arrest some protesters who remained near the scene, according to multiple reports. The protesters – who numbered less than 100 – were ordered to disperse east down Canfield Drive, or “chemical munitions” would be used against them, reports said. About 2 a.m., some bombs could be seen on Canfield, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Professor Roediger, who was in Ferguson Sunday night, says that police fired tear gas down Canfield Drive in the direction they were asking protesters to disperse.
“Several times they said, ‘East on Canfield,’ ” Roediger says. “The crowd moved east on Canfield, and [police] shot tear gas three blocks down.”
“The police just cannot do anything but escalate,” he adds. “If it wasn’t for the folks there doing de-escalation on the organizers’ side, last night would’ve been a hundred times worse.”
The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, with the Ferguson Action Council, also condemned the police action on Sunday night.
On the anniversary of Brown’s death, he said in a statement, “we see yet again overly aggressive policing in blatant violation of the constitutional rights of those gathered, the blanket use of chemical weapons on people given no possibility of dispersing and most tragically, the shooting of yet another young black man.”
The FPD has acknowledged that it has struggled to address a central criticism from the Justice Department report: recruiting more minority officers. Of the department’s 50 officers, five are black, and at least one black officer quit the force after Brown’s shooting, Reuters reported.
Ferguson Police Sgt. Dominica Fuller told the wire service that the city has started a program to pay for black police candidates to go through the police academy, but has not had many takers.
“There are not a lot of minorities that want to be police officers, let alone in the city of Ferguson,” she said.
Sergeant Fuller, who has been with the department for 17 years and became its first black female police sergeant in May, said that while a lot has changed, “there’s still people that are still hurt and angry.”
“It’s going to take some time,” she added, “but we’re working on that.”
Others point out that some of the changes are only temporary. Mr. Anderson, the interim police chief, has taken a six-month leave of absence from his current department in Glendale, Ariz. A judge brought in to reform the municipal court system will be retiring, by law, when he turns 75 in eight months, according to CNN.
“A new city manager and police chief don’t make changes people can feel and experience,” the Rev. Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church in St. Louis told CNN. “When the talk becomes reality, then we’ll stop.”
On Monday, activists marched in St. Louis as part of a day of planned “Moral Monday” events. They gathered outside the federal courthouse in the city and flew a banner in front of the iconic St. Louis Arch that read, “Racism Still Lives Here.”
Roediger says that, while it is important to claim the victories that have been achieved, “it is not finished.”
“That change was forced by activists and organizers,” he says. “There’s a whole community locally and nationally that’s building political power, and that has not paid off entirely yet, but it will.”