FERGUSON, Mo. — Two police officers were shot here early Thursday morning as gunfire rang out in front of the police station, throwing into panic what had been a spirited — and at times tense — but largely peaceful night of protests.
Demonstrators and police officers alike hit the ground when the gunshots echoed through the crisp air. Many people ran for cover. The police, clad in riot gear, dragged their wounded fellow officers to safety. Others crouched behind cars and walls, drawing their handguns or rifles as they rapidly swiveled their heads every which way to survey their surroundings.
One officer, from the St. Louis County Police Department, was shot in the shoulder, and the other, from the suburban Webster Groves department, was shot in the face. Both were in serious condition, but their injuries were not life threatening, said Sgt. Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County police.
The shots, which witnesses said they believed originated from the top of a hill about 220 yards directly across from the station, came just hours after the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, announced that he would resign, a move greeted with praise from protesters. Chief Jackson had been at the center of criticism that he ran a racially biased department ever since one of his white officers fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager seven months ago.Continue reading the main storyVideo
Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department said two officers were shot during a protest that began only hours after the police chief in Ferguson, Mo., resigned.
But Thursday’s shooting threatened to ratchet up tensions, as well as unravel efforts to change the way the police here do business and to heal the anger and frustration that Mr. Brown’s killing had unleashed.
In addition to Chief Jackson’s resignation, two other high-ranking Ferguson officials, the city manager and the municipal judge, left their jobs after a scathing Justice Department report last week that accused the city of racially biased and unconstitutional practices in its law enforcement. City officials had hoped that the changes would help residents see that they were prepared to start anew.
Instead, Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department said that Thursday’s shooting only realized the worst fears he has had since the unrest over Mr. Brown’s killing — that it would lead to serious violence.
He said he believed the gunman targeted the officers who were lined up shoulder to shoulder in front of the Ferguson police station to keep protesters back.
“I’ve said all along that we cannot sustain this forever without problems,” Chief Belmar told reporters during a news conference in front of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where the wounded officers were being treated.
“I don’t know who did the shooting, to be honest with you,” he added. Chief Belmar said that based on the bullets’ trajectory and where the officers had been standing, he assumed that “these shots were directed exactly at my police officers.” He said he did not know what kind of gun had been used.
The Webster Groves officer is 32 years old and a seven-year veteran of the force, while the St. Louis County officer is 41 and has 14 years experience, the county police said.
Emotions quickly ran high after the shooting. One Ferguson officer, standing among the protesters as things calmed down, said, “This is what they wanted to happen.”
When a protester told him that no one wanted this to happen, the officer was adamant, saying that that was his opinion and that the protester could differ if he wanted.
Protesters on the scene were quick to point out that the gunfire did not come from among them, rather from a distance behind them.
Earlier in the night, the protests took on a familiar pattern that had not really been seen here since after a grand jury announced in November that it would not indict the white officer, Darren Wilson, for the fatal shooting of Mr. Brown.Photo
It was as much a celebration of Chief Jackson’s resignation as it was a call for more action.
“Not just Jackson, we want Knowles, Ferguson has got to go!” they yelled in reference to James Knowles III, the mayor of Ferguson.
Protesters engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of sorts with the police. Dozens of them flooded into the street in front of the Police Department, blocking cars as they tried to pass. Things occasionally became tense between the protesters and motorists, some of whom refused to back away when demonstrators lined up in front of their vehicles. On several occasions, drivers inched forward, tapping the knees of protesters who dared them to hit them.
Each time, one side would eventually give in: Either the driver would back away, or the protesters would let them through. But on other occasions, police officers wearing helmets and clutching transparent shields and batons would race into the street to clear away the demonstrators. The police made a handful of arrests.
Some of the tensest moments came when the protesters fought among themselves. Some people urged others to block cars, while others urged their fellow demonstrators to get out of the street and direct their anger at the officers in front of the police station.
There were tussles between protesters who did not recognize one another, with the fault line appearing to be those who had been demonstrating for many months versus those who were new to the movement. Some took offense to the supposedly new protesters trying to tell them what to do. At one point, it devolved into fisticuffs in the street, as the police stood by watching.
But by midnight, the situation calmed down, and the number of protesters dwindled to around 100, if not fewer. They stood on the east side of South Florissant Road, while the police held their line on the west side, in front of the station.
Then, without any warning or seeming escalation, the shots rang out.
“I heard the bullets go past my head,” said Bradley J. Rayford, a freelance photographer, who said he was standing near the officers when the shots were fired. After the first one, Mr. Rayford said, he looked up at a hill across from the police station and saw muzzle fire from that direction. He said he heard about four shots, after which he moved to the ground.
After the shots were fired on Thursday, the remaining protesters scattered, and the St. Louis County Police Department’s homicide unit was sent to investigate.
Dozens of officers from around the region also arrived to secure the area. A group of officers in tactical gear carefully walked up the hill across from the police station where Mr. Rayford and other witnesses said the shots had come from.
By 2 a.m., a handful of people remained in the lot across the department, which was encircled in yellow police tape. Investigators tried to interview people in the group. But in a sign of the chasm that remained between law enforcement and this protest movement, many of them were reluctant to talk.