Delay in moving body fueled anger in Ferguson

Sondra Fifer (left) confronted a demonstrator supporting Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson during a rally in St. Louis. The St. Louis County NAACP also held a youth march to the site where Michael Brown was killed.
Joshua Lott/Reuters
Sondra Fifer (left) confronted a demonstrator supporting Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson during a rally in St. Louis. The St. Louis County NAACP also held a youth march to the site where Michael Brown was killed.

FERGUSON, Mo. — Just after noon on Saturday, Aug. 9, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer on Canfield Drive. For about four hours, in the unrelenting summer sun, his body remained where he fell.

Neighbors were horrified by the gruesome scene: Brown, 18, face down in the middle of the street, blood streaming from his head.

They ushered their children into rooms that faced away from Canfield Drive. They called friends and local news stations to tell them what had happened. They posted on Twitter and Facebook, and recorded cellphone videos.


Brown probably could not have been revived, and the time that his body lay in the street might ultimately have no bearing on the investigations into whether the shooting was justified. But local officials say the image of Brown’s corpse in the open set the scene for what was to become a combustible worldwide story of police tactics and race in America, and left some of them asking why.

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“The delay helped fuel the outrage,” said Patricia Bynes, a committeewoman in Ferguson. “It was very disrespectful to the community and the people who live there. It also sent the message from law enforcement that, ‘We can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

Ferguson’s streets remained peaceful Saturday as tensions between police and protesters continued to subside after nights of violence and unrest that erupted after the killing.

The St. Louis County NAACP held a youth march Saturday afternoon to the site where Brown was killed. Supporters of the officer, Darren Wilson, rallied in St. Louis. Earlier in the day, Normandy High School, which Brown attended, observed a moment of silence for him at the start of a football game.

A small stream of protesters marched in Ferguson as night fell Friday, but instead of confrontations with police, several stopped to talk one-on-one with officers about the killing and the tactics used by authorities during previous demonstrations. Two weeks after Brown’s death, interviews with law enforcement officials and a review of police logs make clear that a combination of factors, some under police control and some not, contributed to the time lapse in removing his body.


The St. Louis County Police Department, which almost immediately took over the investigation, had officers on the scene quickly, but its homicide detectives were not called until about 40 minutes after the shooting, and arrived around 1:30 p.m., according to county police logs. It was another hour before an investigator from the medical examiner’s office arrived.

Around 4 p.m., Brown’s body was taken to the morgue in Berkeley, Mo., about 6 miles from Canfield Drive. It was checked into the morgue at 4:37 p.m., more than 4½ hours after he died.

Officials said they were contending with what they described as “sheer chaos” on Canfield Drive, where bystanders, including at least one of Brown’s relatives, frequently stepped inside the yellow tape, hindering investigators. Gunshots were heard at the scene, further disrupting the officers’ work.

“Usually they go straight to their jobs,” said Officer Brian Schellman, a county police spokesman, of the detectives who process crime scenes for evidence. But that was not possible. “They couldn’t do that right away because there weren’t enough police there to quiet the situation.”

For part of the time, Brown’s body lay uncovered, allowing people to record it on their cellphones. Eventually, the police draped Brown’s body with a white sheet, but his feet remained exposed and blood could still be seen. The police later shielded the body with a low, six-panel orange partition typically used for car crashes.


Experts in policing said there was no standard for how long a body should remain on a scene, but they expressed surprise at how Brown’s body had been allowed to remain in public view.

Asked to describe procedures in New York, Gerald Nelson, a chief who commands the patrol forces in much of Brooklyn, said that as soon as emergency medical workers have concluded that a victim is dead, “that body is immediately covered.”

St. Louis County police officials acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the time it took to shield Brown’s body and have it removed, and that they were mindful of the shocked reaction from residents. But they also defended their work, saying the time that elapsed in getting detectives to the scene was not out of the ordinary. Once those investigators arrived, the officials said, they faced delays in processing the crime scene because of the chaos on Canfield Drive.

Also, it was typical, given the limited resources of the Ferguson Police Department, to transfer a homicide investigation to the St. Louis County police, a much larger force with more specialized officers.