All signs pointed to a decision coming as early as this weekend in the case of a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson over the summer, setting off months of protests.
One school district in Ferguson announced that it would close Monday and Tuesday, decision or no decision, to avoid unrest that might follow the news.
An array of law enforcement officials, including some from the FBI, were making final preparations for the possibility of large-scale demonstrations similar to those that erupted, and sometimes turned violent, after the shooting in August.
And the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office, which is overseeing the grand jury, began making arrangements Friday for a public announcement of the decision, whenever it comes.
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Since the shooting of Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9, there have been numerous and strenuous calls for the police officer, Darren Wilson, to resign or be fired. Those close to him said Friday that Wilson, who has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, had no intention of returning to the mostly white police department in the mostly black St. Louis County suburb.
President Barack Obama, in a television interview, urged people in Ferguson and elsewhere to “keep protests peaceful.” In comments to ABC News from a program that aired Friday night, Obama said: “Using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are.”
All around the St. Louis region, people were girding for what might follow an announcement of the grand jury’s decision, as the shooting spurred months of furious protests over police conduct, racial profiling and what demonstrators consider a racially biased justice system. Many protesters said they expected that Wilson would not be indicted and that the grand jury’s finding would set off renewed —and perhaps still larger — responses of anger, even violence.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. issued recommendations to law enforcement agencies Friday aimed at limiting clashes with protesters.
As Missouri National Guard troops were being called up to assist a unified command of state and local police officers, Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., recorded a public service announcement urging demonstrators to be peaceful.
“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer,” he said in the videotaped statement. “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change — positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
Holder also called for peaceful protest but also for restraint from law enforcement officers.
“The Justice Department encourages law enforcement officials, in every jurisdiction, to work with the communities that they serve to minimize needless confrontation,” Holder said in a videotaped statement. “It is vital to engage in planning and preparation, from evaluating protocols and training to choosing the appropriate equipment and uniforms.”
Separate from the grand jury, the Justice Department is conducting two civil rights inquiries — one into the shooting of Brown and another into the Ferguson Police Department and whether it has engaged in a pattern of civil rights violations.
State and local officials have encouraged the Justice Department to announce the results of its inquiry into the shooting at the same time as the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, arguing that if no charges are filed against Wilson, Holder’s credibility among African-Americans will reassure people that the decision was a result of a thorough investigation. But Holder and his top aides have repeatedly refused, saying their investigation was not complete and rushing to finish it to meet the state’s timeline would be inappropriate.
The FBI has sent several dozen of its personnel to the St. Louis area, according to law enforcement officials. Many of them are uniformed police officers who will be there to protect the bureau’s field office in St. Louis if there are riots or protests.
Specialized computer technicians have been sent to Ferguson to help the police department and the local government fend off attacks from hackers who have pledged to bring down their computer networks. Intelligence analysts are also in the area to help identify anarchists and others who may use the verdict as an excuse to lash out violently.
Since the afternoon of Aug. 9, when Brown was shot at least six times after a confrontation with Wilson, protesters have held demonstrations nearly nightly.
Authorities said Friday that they would abide by a set of “rules of engagement” proposed during talks with demonstrators in recent weeks, though they did not agree to all of the 19 suggested rules. Police, for instance, agreed that the government should not limit cellular or Internet service and that officers would treat “protesters as citizens and not ‘enemy combatants.’”
Yet law enforcement officials refused a request to provide 48 hours’ notice of the grand jury announcement, saying that was not their choice to make, and offered qualified agreement to demands to limit the use of riot gear and not to stop reporters or legal observers from working.
“If protesters are nonviolent, police will not be aggressive,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said at a news conference outlining the rules. “When demonstrators are being civilly disobedient, they will in most cases be given a chance to adhere to the law before being arrested. And then, if necessary, they will be arrested in a nonviolent manner.”
Around the region, schools have been preparing for the grand jury’s return, and some have asked that the announcement be made outside school hours. On Friday, officials in the Jennings School District, one of four serving Ferguson, announced that its eight schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday.
Other districts in the region have decided to remain open Monday and Tuesday, saying it would be premature to close schools when it was still unknown when the grand jury’s decision would be announced.
“As of right now, there’s been no change in our schedule,” said Jana Shortt, a spokeswoman for the Ferguson-Florissant School District. “It’s business as usual until we receive something from the prosecutor’s office, some word of an announcement.”
Discussions between Ferguson officials and Wilson’s lawyers had begun in the past two months, some involved said, but tapered off without resolution. On several occasions, Ferguson officials have urged him to resign, but he has not agreed on the timing of his departure, an official with knowledge of the talks said Friday. The city does not plan to offer Wilson, who says that he feared for his life when he encountered Brown and shot him, severance pay or any compensation in exchange for his resignation, an official said.
Ferguson personnel rules require that an investigation be completed in order to fire an employee. That has not yet happened, the official said. If Wilson is indicted in Brown’s death, city officials have said, he will be fired.