Aug 18 3:42 PM

Ferguson battles play out in the street, courts and the press

Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

“Communication breakdown.”

That’s what Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson called it when he was questioned as to why Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol had not been consulted or even informed in advance of the Ferguson PD releasing convenience store surveillance video allegedly showing Michael Brown shoplifting and “strong arming” the proprietor.

Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson after a confrontation that reportedly stemmed from Brown walking in the middle of the street. Community demonstrations over the killing grew as St. Louis Country Police responded with military-style vehicles, heavily armored personnel, rubber bullets and tear gas.

On Thursday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon addressed the escalating tension by changing the command structure, replacing the Country Police with the State Highway Patrol under the control of Capt. Johnson.

But if we are to believe Jackson, the chief didn’t get the memo. “I’m still in the ‘county being in charge’ mode,” said Jackson at the second of his Friday press briefings.

Apparently, the chief had missed the wall-to-wall media coverage the day before as the Governor hinted, then pre-announced, and then officially announced that the St. Louis County Police would be relieved of command in Ferguson. Apparently, he had also missed how Capt. Johnson and Highway Patrol were walking down the streets of Fergusson Thursday night, sans riot gear or tear gas, and how that night there were no arrests and no reports of vandalism or looting.

And apparently Jackson had also missed the U.S. Department of Justice actively urging him on both Thursday and Friday not to release the surveillance video for fear it would reinvigorate community anger.

Or maybe that is exactly the message he got.

On view in the daytime press conferences and nighttime streets of Ferguson are but some of the facets of a multi-dimensional narrative that is partly about safety, partly about justice, and partly about political power.

As discussed Friday, the actions taken by the Ferguson police seemed designed to deflect attention away from the actions of Officer Wilson — whose name was revealed at the same press conference that released the police reports on the shoplifting/robbery allegations against Brown.

Missing from the 19 pages of incident reports was any paperwork on Wilson’s shooting of Brown — the information that had actually been sought by Brown family lawyers and journalists all week. Still, Chief Jackson tried to conflate the events, first with his timing, but also by insisting that the release of the surveillance video came because the press had asked for it. (My search for references to convenience store or cigar store video surveillance of Brown dating from before Friday morning has come up empty. If there are published requests out there, please send them our way. Jackson declined Friday to give specifics about the requests he received.)

When pressed, however, Jackson said that Officer Wilson was not aware of the robbery reports when he stopped Brown, and that the confrontation between Wilson and Brown occurred because Brown and a friend were obstructing traffic by walking in the middle of the street.

Jackson tried to fuzzy that up later in the day by saying Wilson had seen cigars (the item allegedly stolen) in Brown’s possession, but Jackson did not say if this was before or after Wilson confronted Brown, or even whether this was before Wilson shot Brown.

Clearer than Jackson’s justifications, however, were what would likely happen. Television news, always happy for a visual, played the store surveillance clip in a nearly constant loop through out most of the day, and the conversation drifted from the name of the officer to what Brown had allegedly done, and then to the anger felt by Brown representatives and the people of Ferguson at the perceived attempt to assassinate Brown’s character and justify his killing.

And that anger spilled onto Ferguson’s streets later. Where Thursday had seen a lighter mood and law enforcement without all the military gear walking with demonstrators, Friday devolved into renewed tension, accompanied by property damage, some looting, and reports of rocks and Molotov cocktails being lobbed at police.

And the police responded with a reintroduction of some riot gear and tear gas.

By Saturday morning, it was the perfect “I told you so” moment for defenders the Ferguson and St. Louis County police and critics of Gov. Nixon. A cycle of accusations and televised tension-elevating talk had been renewed. Saturday and Sunday nights saw more looting and a more aggressive police response.

After late Sunday standoffs between law enforcement and small groups of more violent demonstrators, Gov. Nixon announced that the Missouri National Guard would be mobilized in Ferguson.

Bringing in the Guard was not completely out of left field. Earlier last week, as St. Louis County and Ferguson police seemed dead set on using overwhelming displays of force to silence any kind of demonstrations, U.S. Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who had himself been a victim of police violence, called on President Barack Obama to invoke martial law and federalize the Missouri National Guard “to protect the people as they protest.”

Martial law has not been declared, and Nixon has placed the Missouri Guard under the command of State Highway Patrol Colonel Ron Replogle. How the guardsmen will integrate with other law enforcement, how they will behave — indeed, what gear they will bring to the streets — remains to be seen, as does how the legacy of historic civil rights-era Guard interventions will influence the perception of a present-day guard that has itself been militarized to some extent by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the battle between the local and state law enforcement commands is only one of the internecine rivalries playing out in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

Also discussed last week, the growing calls for an independent prosecutor to take control of the investigation into the police shooting of Brown.

While the Justice Department will conduct its own civil rights inquiry into the shooting, the investigation and prosecution of the shooter, Officer Darren Wilson, remains in the hands of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch. McCulloch’s impartiality has been called into question, both because of his personal story (his police officer father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was 12) and because of a number of high-profile cases where McCulloch was seen to favor police — most notably in a 2000 probe of two officers accused of firing 21 shots into a parked car, murdering a suspect in a drug investigation and his passenger.

In other states where high-profile shootings have called impartiality into question, authorities have moved to bring in special state prosecutors. But this would be extremely unusual in Missouri, according to Washington University Law Professor Peter Joy who directs the school’s Criminal Justice Clinic. Joy told the AP that because prosecutors in Missouri are elected officials, “the buck stops with the prosecutor” in each county.

A change could be made by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster — and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has asked the AG to do just that — but that move, too, comes with baggage. Dooley has not been an ally of McCulloch in the past, and in return, McCulloch campaigned for Dooley’s rival in the recent state primary. Dooley, who has been county executive for 10 years, lost to that McCulloch-backed rival, Steve Stenger, earlier this month.

But there is also community pressure. Organizers said Sunday that they had gathered 20,000 signatures, with a goal of collecting 50,000, on a petition asking McCulloch to step aside.

“Many community members don’t believe he can be fair and impartial,” said state Senator Jamilah Nasheed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Adding that she would continue to put pressure on McCulloch to “resign.”

As of this writing, McCulloch remains in place. But word comes this afternoon that, in an effort to again ease tensions in the streets, there will be no curfew in Ferguson. At what point the politics and security concerns take a back seat to the search for justice in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager still remains to be seen.

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