fb-pixel Skip to main content

Ferguson, Mo., tensions flare following disclosures

Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol expressed his displeasure with how the information was released. Video (left) showed a man shoving a store clerk. Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

FERGUSON, Mo. — Authorities in this restive suburb of St. Louis on Friday began telling their version of the events surrounding the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, but the halting, contradictory nature of the account revived popular anger here and brought criticism from other law enforcement agencies.

Nearly a week after 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death sparked days of protests, police identified the officer who killed him as Darren Wilson, who has six years of service with no disciplinary record. But they provided virtually no information about the officer, instead focusing on linking Brown to a convenience store robbery that occurred just before the shooting.


At a tense early-morning news conference, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Brown had been the prime suspect in that robbery — in which several boxes of cigars were stolen — and that his description was broadcast over police frequencies just before his encounter with Wilson. Police dramatized the allegation, releasing security camera photos showing a person they identified as Brown towering over and menacing the store clerk, images that were circulated nationwide.

Yet, despite the implication that Brown had been stopped because of the robbery, Jackson later appeared to reverse himself, saying at a second news conference that the confrontation ‘‘was not related to the robbery’’ at all. Instead, he said, Brown was stopped because he and a friend were walking in the street.

Hours later, Jackson returned again to the robbery theme, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the officer saw cigars in Brown’s hand and realized he might be the robber.

The confusion not only did little to calm tensions roiling this community of 21,000 but appeared to further inflame them. Scattered protests continued, and the police actions drew a rebuke from Brown’s family, which accused Jackson of deliberately besmirching the teen’s character.


‘‘The family feels that was strategic,’’ Anthony Gray, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said during a news conference Friday. ‘‘They feel it was aimed at denigrating their son. It was an attempt at character assassination.’’

Added Eric Davis, a cousin of Brown’s mother: ‘‘It infuriated us.’’

There were also signs Friday of a rift among state and local authorities involved in the case, only one day after political and community leaders mounted a renewed effort to tamp down the violence and find ways to prevent future outbreaks while multiple investigations of the shooting proceed.

In an unusual public disagreement, the law enforcement official newly in charge of security in Ferguson appeared to question the decision to name Brown as a robbery suspect. ‘‘I would have liked to have been consulted,’’ Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson said Friday, adding that he would meet with Jackson to discuss ‘‘how that was released.’’

Johnson, who is black and grew up in the Ferguson area, had been put in charge on Thursday by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon when the governor announced that the state highway patrol would take over security operations after days of images of heavily armed police and tear gas in the streets.

Law enforcement officials typically strive to present a united front, yet Nixon’s decision prompted an unusual public attack from St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who was angered that the move would take control of the scene away from St. Louis County police. ‘‘For Nixon to never talk to the commanders in the field and come in here and take this action is disgraceful,’’ McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ‘‘It’s shameful what he did.’’


St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley later said he is leading an effort to remove the county prosecutor from the investigation because of bias. McCulloch is the person who will decide whether state charges will be filed against the police officer.

It was not clear Friday whether the evident turf battles would hamper the state investigation of Brown’s shooting. The Justice Department and FBI, which are conducting a parallel investigation to determine whether Brown’s civil rights were violated, are deferring for now to state investigators but are also monitoring them.

The announcements from police identifying the officer and naming Brown as a robbery suspect came after the calmest night in Ferguson since Brown was killed. His death has sparked outrage and protests, with hundreds marching in the streets in the days that followed.

Little information about the shooting has been publicly released, and the media frenzy to learn more about Wilson yielded only scattered bits of information.

A few days ago, Wilson, 28 , who has been placed on administrative leave, left his neighborhood in Crestwood, a city of 11,000 people about 18 miles southwest of Ferguson. Dark blue undercover police cars were parked outside his house on Manda Lane, with a marked police car in the parking lot of a church to the rear of the house.


The sequence of events in Brown’s shooting is unclear. According to a friend who says he witnessed the encounter, Brown was walking on a street when a police officer in a car ordered him to get on the sidewalk. Brown had his hands in the air to show he was unarmed when the officer shot him multiple times, the friend said. The police version is that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to grab his gun.