Police Chief Claims Shooting Victim May Have Been Involved in Robbery, But Says Cop Who Fired Shots Didn't Know About It
The police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager in the Missouri city of Ferguson, sparking days of protests and violent clashes, was named on Friday. But police also released security camera footage and an incident report that implicated the victim, 18-year-old Michael Brown, in an earlier robbery at a convenience store, infuriating his family and prompting concerns of new tensions in the area.
The Browns’ attorney said they were “beyond outraged” by the revelation, which came unaccompanied by any further details of the shooting. The family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, described the report as a “brutal assassination” of Brown’s character.
In a further development, police later disclosed that the officer who shot Brown was not even aware of the robbery, which had taken place a few minutes earlier. Ferguson’s local police chief, Thomas Jackson, was pressured to explain why the information about the robbery had been released at the same time. Crump accused police of playing a game of “smoke and mirrors”.
Jackson identified the officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the city police department. He said that Wilson had a clean disciplinary record before the shooting on Saturday.
The disclosure brought an end to wide-ranging speculation and rumour that residents said was stoking disgruntlement. Several names had previously been published online and circulated locally, forcing police to issue denials.
The refusal to disclose any further information about the shooting of Brown, combined with the revelation of a partial account of events that allegedly preceded it, threatened to revive hostilities in a town where protests gave way to a carnival-like atmosphere on Thursday night.
A brief section in the incident report tied the robbery to Brown’s killing, which it said was “worth mentioning”. The report read: “In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department.” No further details of the killing were offered.
Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri state highway patrol, who won plaudits for his handling of the demonstrations after being handed control on Thursday, said he “would have liked to have been consulted” about the simultaneous release of the report of the name and alleged robbery.
“The information could have been put out in a different way,” Johnson told reporters and residents at a press conference that unfolded more like a town hall meeting on Friday. “I would have communicated it differently,” he told the Guardian afterwards.
The disagreement over Friday’s decision highlighted the overlapping jurisdictions of the law enforcement agencies involved. The robbery report was released by Ferguson city police, the force that employs the officer who shot Brown, which has come under sharp criticism for not reflecting the racial makeup of the city, which is majority African American.
The inquiry into the shooting is being led by St Louis County police, which led the policing of the demonstrations over Brown’s death throughseveral nights of violent clashes, before being relieved by Nixon on Thursday. Control of the security for protests was handed to Johnson and the state highway patrol, whose dramatic shift in tactics away from a hardline response was credited with allowing the calmer atmosphere on Thursday night.
Nonetheless, residents expressed fury at Johnson on Friday over the actions of the separate city police force. “There’s a lot of evidence come out about [Brown’s] character, and what he was before the shooting,” said Carl Walter, 38. “Why is there not the same transparency about this officer? This young man lost his life.”
Governor Jay Nixon conceded at the same press conference that “certain things should have come out sooner than they did later”.
“New facts are out that weren’t out yesterday,” said Nixon. “But those are not the full picture of anything.” He added: “Nothing should deter figuring out how and why Michael Brown was killed.”
According to the Ferguson police account of the robbery, witnesses told police that Brown stole several packets of Swisher Sweet cigars from a convenience store between 11.52am and 11.54am on 9 August.
Store surveillance footage shows that “an apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown”, and then as he made to leave, an unidentified man tried to stop him. Brown pushed the man into a display rack, started to leave the store, appeared to intimidate the person one more time, then left, according to the report.
A friend, Dorian Johnson, was identified in the police report as being involved in the robbery. He was also present at the scene of the shooting, which took place a few minutes later and has spoken several times about the incident, contradicting claims by the police that Brown wrestled with Wilson before the shots were fired.
Jackson said on Friday the officer was treated for an injury sustained during his encounter with Brown. He had previously said that, following the incident, the officer had sustained a swollen face and was treated in hospital. Asked what had struck the officer’s face, Jackson told a press conference earlier this week: “Don’t know.”
Adding further tension between the various authorities involved, county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who would be responsible for bringing any charges against the officer, reportedly reacted furiously to Nixon’s transfer of leading the policing the demonstrations. “It’s shameful what he did,” McCulloch told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
Nixon declined to respond to McCulloch’s comments when asked on Friday. “We’re focused on our responsibility we have here,” he said.
Police were posted at the convenience store allegedly robbed by Brown. At least half a dozen officers from the highway patrol and county police, plus what appeared to be a plain clothes officer with a bulletproof vest, took position outside and inside the store around 1pm, hours after authorities posted security camera footage of the incident.
Staff initially told the Guardian it happened at another store but after police arrived they said they had no comment. “We have nothing to say,” said one woman at the cash register.
‘They’re good people. I’ve known them for over 10 years,” said Eugene Ward, 43, clutching a bag of water bottles and beer cans. “If the evidence shows that the gentleman was here and committed a crime that doesn’t change the excessive police reaction. But it also doesn’t condone what the young man did.”
Police at the scene declined to comment but one highway patrolman was heard telling a customer that the officer involved in the shooting appeared to have been a good man and that Brown’s death was a tragedy.