Chief clarifies: Ferguson police officer didn’t know Brown was a suspect
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The chief in the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by police says the officer didn’t know the teen was a robbery suspect at the time of the shooting.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson says 18-year-old Michael Brown and his friend were stopped Saturday “because they were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic.”
Jackson earlier Friday released documents alleging Brown had been suspected of stealing a $48.99 box of cigars from a convenience store in a “strong-arm” robbery shortly before he was killed.
During an afternoon news conference Jackson said the robbery “was not related to the initial contact” between the officer and Brown.
Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were suspected of taking a box of cigars from a convenience store in Ferguson that morning, according to police reports. Jackson earlier said Wilson went to the area after a 911 call reporting a “strong-arm” robbery just before noon. He said a dispatcher gave a description of the robbery suspect, and Wilson, who had been assisting on another call, was sent to investigate.
Wilson, a six-year veteran of the police department, encountered Brown just after 12:01 p.m., with a second officer arriving three minutes later, Jackson said.
Brown’s uncle, Bernard Ewing, questioned whether Wilson really believed Brown was a suspect. He noted Johnson’s account that the officer told the two young men to get out of the street and onto the sidewalk, and that Brown had his hands up when he was shot.
“If he’s a robbery suspect, they would have had the lights on,” Ewing said. “If you rob somebody, you would tell them, ‘Get on the ground’ or something, not, ‘Get off the sidewalk.’”
“It still doesn’t justify shooting him when he puts his hands up,” he added. “You still don’t shoot him in the face.”
A phone message seeking comment from the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, wasn’t immediately returned.
Brown’s death has sparked several days of clashes with furious protesters in the city. The mood was quelled on Thursday after the governor turned oversight of the protests over to the state Highway Patrol. State troopers walking side-by-side with thousands of peaceful protesters replaced the image of previous nights: police in riot gear and armored tanks.
But the police chief’s announcement Friday was met with immediate disbelief and anger by several dozen community members who also attended the news conference, which was hastily held at a gas station burned during a night of looting earlier in the week in Ferguson, a town of 21,000 that is nearly 70 percent black and patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.
“He stopped the wrong one, bottom line,” yelled Tatinisha Wheeler, a nurse’s aide who was at the news conference.
A couple dozen protesters began marching around the charred gas station and in the street chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street during a routine patrol. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car before the struggle spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times, according to police.
Dorian Johnson has told media a different story. He said he and Brown were walking in the street when an officer ordered them onto the sidewalk, then grabbed his friend’s neck and tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He said Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times.
Tensions in Ferguson boiled over after a candlelight vigil Sunday night, as looters smashed and burned businesses in the neighborhood, where police have repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.
By Thursday, there was a dramatic shift in the atmosphere after Gov. Jay Nixon assigned protest oversight to Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black and grew up near Ferguson. He marched alongside protesters, along with other high-ranking brass from the Highway Patrol and the St. Louis County Police Department.
“We’re here to serve and protect,” Johnson said. “We’re not here to instill fear.”
The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter. When darkness fell — the point at which previous protests have grown tense — no uniformed officers were in sight outside the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that had become a flashpoint for standoffs between police and protesters.
“All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas,” Pedro Smith, who has participated in the nightly protests, said Thursday. “This is totally different. Now we’re being treated with respect.”
The more tolerant response came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about the shooting — and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson.
Obama said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed witnesses to the shooting.
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