Police, other groups try to tamp down tensions in Ferguson
FERGUSON, Missouri (AP) — Two officers shot amid protests in a Missouri city that has become a symbol of tensions between police and African Americans were released from the hospital Thursday as officials and activists sought to tamp down tensions.
The officers were shot early Thursday morning in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a protest following the resignation of the city’s police chief in the wake of damning U.S. Justice Department report.
Several people were taken in for questioning after a special weapons and tactics team converged on a Ferguson home near the shooting site, but they were later released, and no arrests were made.
The shots were fired early Thursday just as a small crowd of protesters began to break up after a demonstration that unfolded hours after the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
The shots were believed to come from a handgun across the street from the police department, which has been a national focal point since the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer.
The gunman may have fired from up to 120 yards (110 meters) away, a long distance for most pistols. But with a line of roughly 20 officers standing in front of the building, the shooter did not have to be particularly accurate to hit two of them, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said.
Tensions have been high in Ferguson since August and escalated in November after a grand jury declined to prosecute officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s killing. Justice Department investigators concurred with the grand jury’s finding in a report released March 4.
But a separate Justice Department report released that same day found racial profiling and bias in the Ferguson police force, and a municipal court system driven by profit, largely on the backs of black and low-income residents.
The shootings marked the first time in more than seven months of tension in Ferguson that officers were shot at a protest, and the bloodshed threatened to inflame the already fraught relationship between police and protesters just as the city seeks reforms.
President Barack Obama took to Twitter to relay his prayers to the officers and to denounce violence against police as unacceptable. “Path to justice is one all of us must travel together,” Obama wrote, signing the tweet with his initials to indicate the president personally composed it.
The officers were quickly released from the hospital, Belmar said they could have easily been killed and called the attack “an ambush.” Meanwhile, people were taken in for questioning after police converged on a home near the shooting site. Police did not immediately offer details.
Both officers suffered significant wounds but were expected to recover, Belmar said.
A 41-year-old officer was shot in the right shoulder, the bullet exiting through his back. A 32-year-old officer was wearing a riot helmet with the face shield up. He was shot in the right cheek, just below the eye, and the bullet lodged behind his ear.
John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist, said the shooting was conducted by outside agitators who are intent on hijacking attention from peaceful, reform-minded protesters.
Activists “cannot afford these kinds of incidents happening, because that gets us absolutely nowhere.”
In a statement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and the city council said that though they respect the right to protest peacefully, “we cannot continue to move forward under threats of violence and destruction to our community. We ask our residents and clergy in this area to partner with us as we make our way through this process.”
In amateur video of the shooting accessed by the Associated Press, two shots ring out and a man is heard screaming out in pain.
Someone at the scene, unseen and unidentified in the video, says: “Acknowledgement nine months ago would have kept that from happening.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Josh Lederman in Washington, Greg Moore and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, and Summer Ballentine and Marie French in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.