FERGUSON, Mo. – Police on Thursday defended the use of tear gas and smoke bombs to repel protesters after another night of chaos in a St. Louis suburb following the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said officers on Wednesday night tossed tear gas to disperse a large crowd of protesters after some threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers. More than 10 people were arrested in Ferguson.
“In talking to these guys, it is scary,” Schellman said of officers on the front lines of the protest. “They hear gunshots going off, and they don’t know where they’re coming from.”
But the police response is drawing criticism from many circles.
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Civil rights activist Al Sharpton called Thursday for the Justice Department to monitor Ferguson and the way police are handling the crisis.
“Even if we disagree, this climate is not good for anyone and is dangerous for everyone,” Sharpton said in a statement.
The police chiefs of Ferguson and St. Louis County said Wednesday that race relations were the top priority in the town, where a white police officer fatally shot the black teen. Authorities have vowed to reach across the racial, economic and generational divide in a community in search of answers. A meeting was scheduled for Thursday between civil rights leaders and police.
Officers from multiple departments in riot gear and in military equipment have clashed nightly with protesters, who chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Protesters faced heavily armed police who at times trained weapons on them from armored trucks.
Two reporters said they were detained by police for not clearing out quickly enough from a McDonald’s where they were working, near the protests but away from the more volatile areas. The two, who work for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, were released without any charges. Both say they were assaulted but not seriously hurt.
Among those arrested was St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been chronicling the protests on social media.
“I think the heavy-handed approach by police is escalating the situation and more people are going to get hurt if this keeps up,” French told KMOX Radio.
The White House said President Barack Obama – who is on vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard – was briefed late Wednesday on the situation in Ferguson by Attorney General Eric Holder and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Obama has another briefing scheduled for Thursday.
Residents in Ferguson have complained about the police response that began with the use of dogs for crowd control soon after Brown’s shooting – a tactic that for some invoked the civil rights protests from a half-century ago. The county police force took over, leading both the investigation of Brown’s shooting and the subsequent attempts to keep the peace at the smaller city’s request.
County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his officers have responded with “an incredible amount of restraint” as they’ve had rocks and bottles thrown at them, been shot at and had two dozen patrol vehicles destroyed.
Police had asked people to assemble in “an organized and respectful” manner and disperse before evening.
The city and county are also under criticism for refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing threats against that officer and others. The hacker group anonymous released a name purported to be the officer’s on Thursday, but the Associated Press could not immediately verify that the name was correct.
St. Louis County police and the FBI are investigating the shooting. County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said Wednesday that it could be several weeks before the investigation wraps up and authorities decide whether to charge the officer.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson called improving race relations “the top priority right now” but also said he won’t be pressured into publicly identifying the officer despite mounting demands to do so.
“We have the right to know, and the family has the right to know who murdered their son,” said Sahari Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Ferguson legal assistant.
Jackson said he welcomes Justice Department training on racial relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black and all but three of the police force’s 53 officers are white.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon planned to visit Ferguson on Thursday, citing the “worsening situation.” He asked community members to be patient and calm while the investigation proceeds and urged law enforcement agencies to “keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press.”
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car.
The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times. In their initial news conference about the shooting, police didn’t specify whether Brown was the person who scuffled with the officer in the car and have refused to clarify their account.
Jackson said Wednesday that the officer involved sustained swelling facial injuries.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told media outlets that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it “ricocheted” back, apparently upsetting the officer.
Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.
Among the protesters critical of the police response has been state Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, a Democrat from nearby University City.
“I just want to know if I’m going to be gassed again, like I was on Monday night?” she asked Jackson at a press conference. “And I was peaceful. And I’m your state senator.”
“I hope not,” he replied.