Officials and residents around the city of Ferguson, Missouri, are anxiously awaiting a grand jury ruling on whether to indict a white police officer over the shooting death of an unarmed black man — a decision that could come within days, prompting fears of a reprisal of unrest in the summer that saw violent confrontations between protesters and authorities.
Schools in the St. Louis area have said they will send students home if they hear that the panel’s report is due to come down while classes are being held. Meanwhile, the National Guard has been put on standby and shops have been observed boarding up windows.
Many in the St. Louis area fear that another wave of rioting could follow the grand jury's decision, particularly if it decides not to bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old officer who shot and killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
Police in Clayton, Missouri, where the grand jury is sitting, told residents they had learned that protesters were planning demonstrations for the first business day after the news breaks of whether Wilson is indicted.
"Numerous demonstrations have taken place in our city related to the events that began in Ferguson over the summer. To date they have been largely peaceful, with few arrests," Police Chief Kevin Murphy said in a statement Friday.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also said last week that he would activate the National Guard if necessary to deal with protests.
And as a precautionary measure, the suburban St. Louis school district of Hazelwood, Missouri has told parents it would dismiss students early if the grand jury report comes on a school day, adding that prosecutors had promised to provide the district at least three hours' notice if the decision comes on a weekday, with 24 hours' notice if it is made on a weekend.
The Ferguson-Florissant School District has received no such assurances of an early warning when the grand jury decides, said spokeswoman Jana Shortt. A spokesman for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on its website on Friday that Brown was shot to death less than 61 seconds after a dispatcher acknowledged a radio call from Wilson saying he had stopped Brown and his friend. The paper also obtained two videos that show officer Wilson at the Ferguson Police Department in the hours after the shooting.
"The audio clearly demonstrates that the initial interaction with the officer and Brown had nothing to do with the incident at the convenience store," the Brown family said through their lawyers, referring to an alleged robbery carried out by the teen prior to the confrontation with Wilson. It has previously been put forward that the officer had no knowledge of the earlier incident.
On Thursday, private pathologist Dr. Michael Baden testified to the grand jury. Baden, hired by Brown's family in part to try to determine whether Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot, has said Brown was shot at least six times, twice in the head.
There have been conflicting witness accounts of the shooting. Some described a struggle between Brown and Wilson and others said Brown put his hands up.
Signs of preparation for the grand jury's decision could be seen around the St. Louis area this weekend, with businesses along the Ferguson street that saw the worst of the August unrest keeping boards on their windows and some shops near the Ferguson Police Department also beginning to board up their fronts.
St. Louis broadcaster KSDK reported late on Friday that Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said Wilson would immediately return to duty if he is not indicted, although he had not spoken with Wilson to know if he would want to rejoin the department.
He said Wilson would likely be fired if he were to be indicted, the station reported. Jackson could not be reached immediately for comment.
Along with authorities in the St. Louis area, police departments across the country are watching the grand jury decision warily.
Boston police leaders met this week to discuss possible preparations. Los Angeles police have been in touch with their counterparts in Missouri. And Las Vegas police joined community leaders in calling for restraint at a rally planned northwest of the casino strip.
For some cities, a decision in the racially charged case will inevitably reignite long-simmering debates over local police relations with minority communities. But big-city police departments have stressed they're well-equipped to handle unruly crowds.
In advance of the expected ruling — which has been speculated to come down as earlier as this Monday — Brown's parents Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, returned from a trip to Geneva, where they met with where they met members of the U.N. Committee on Torture, and said they hoped their meeting would help to improve the tone of race relations in the United States.
"We were able to let the United Nations know that in the United States we were being treated unfairly and just basically expose that something should be done because this is not a year or two years, this is hundreds of years," McSpadden said. "I hate what happened to my son but it must stop with my son."
Al Jazeera and wire services