Ferguson police spent ‘a long 11 minutes’ scrambling before searching for cop shooter
Police in Ferguson, Missouri, waited more than 10 minutes to pursue the shooter of two officers outside the city’s police station following a protest last week, according to extended video footage recorded at the scene.
Demonstrators complained that the delay, which persisted while officers trained their guns on unarmed protesters, may have allowed the gunman to flee more than a mile into a network of residential streets late on Wednesday night. No arrests have been made over the shootings.
“That was a long 11 minutes,” said Tony Rice, a protester and Ferguson resident, who said he and other demonstrators shouted directions to the police regarding where they thought the shots had come from. “Of course it could have allowed the shooter to get away,” he said.
The officers were shot at 12.07am, as a demonstration marking the resignation of Ferguson’s police chief earlier that day was winding down. An officer from Webster Groves was struck in the face, while another from St Louis County who was standing beside him was hit in a shoulder. Both men were hospitalised but released the next day.
The officers were the first to be shot in the St Louis suburb since protests erupted over the fatal shooting by a white police officer of an unarmed black 18-year-old last August.
Chief Jon Belmar of St Louis County Police said on Friday his detectives were pursuing several leads, but arrests were not imminent. Police suspect the shots were fired from about 125 yards away. Shell casings are said to have been found on an elevated spot on Tiffin Avenue, an upwards-sloping road that runs westward and perpendicular to the main street where officers were standing.
Protesters who were gathered with their backs to this spot quickly concluded it was the shooter’s location. Belmar said officers also saw gun muzzle flashes there.
“The police knew where it came from, but they still had guns on protesters for a long time after,” said Heather De Mian, a livestreamer whose footage of the shooting made international news this week.
Yet a full recording of De Mian’s stream shows that a group of about a dozen officers emerged from police headquarters only at 12.18am, a little under 11 minutes after the shots rang out. A Vine filmed at the same moment shows some held held shields as they walked closely together across South Florissant Road and up Tiffin Avenue, towards the spot where the shooter is believed to have been positioned.
Officer Shawn McGuire, a spokesman for St Louis County police, dismissed suggestions that the response was slow.
“The first priority of the officers on scene were to take care of the two officers that were shot. To treat them, stop the bleeding, etc,” McGuire said in an email.
An estimated 38 other officers were on duty at the station when the two men were shot.
David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of St Louis-Missouri, said “obviously the delay would have allowed the shooter to escape”. However, Klinger declined to judge whether the commanding officer’s decision was tactically wise. “It could have been consistent with the priority of preserving life and property,” he said.
“If shots were to continue, and officers thought there were citizens being fired upon, they would have advanced to that threat quicker,” said McGuire, the police spokesman. “That would be an active shooter, which is a different case. However, that was not the case. The shots stopped after three or four, and so the immediate threat was over.”
However the failure to apprehend the shooter has led to concern among both protesters and police advocates that a dangerous person remains at large in a febrile town.
“I was kind of hoping they would get him overnight,” said Jeff Roorda, a spokesman for the St Louis Police Officers Association. “I worry in a case like this, where a guy has already demonstrated a desire to kill cops, that this thing ends with a shootout or a bad situation.”
Four days after the shootings, mystery still surrounds the identity of the shooter, and whether he or she had any connection with protesters who have demonstrated over the actions of the city’s police force since a officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown on 9 August last year. Protesters strenuously deny there is any link.
Having told reporters soon after the incident that the shooter was “embedded” in the protest in some way, then saying later on Thursday morning that the “protesters were among the shooters”, Belmar eventually conceded on Friday that he “honestly couldn’t tell” whether the gunman had a “nexus” to those demonstrating.
In any case, the shootings followed one of the rowdiest evenings of protest since November, when rioting followed a grand jury’s decision not to charge Wilson with a crime. The shots also concluded a bitter seven days that commenced with the publication of a scathing report on the city’s police and courts system by the Department of Justice, which prompted resignations by six city officials and police commanders.
Rather than announce these departures simultaneously, restricting negative publicity to a single blast and indicating a drastic overhaul of the administration, Ferguson authorities allowed the exodus to unfold over several days, ensuring a drip, drip of bad news. This ensured that anger over the Justice Department’s findings continued to smoulder. Belmar pointedly lamented the prolonged fallout in his remarks the morning after the shootings, suggesting it had ratcheted up tensions once again.
News of the resignation that protesters were most keenly awaiting – Thomas Jackson, the city’s beleaguered police chief – trickled out on what was the warmest day of the year so far in St Louis. Temperatures reached 75F (24C) and were slow to drop as evening fell. Mainstays from August’s protests were enticed out of winter hibernation from about 5.30pm.
Dozens gathered at a patch used by protesters as a base – the parking lot of the Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel Company, directly opposite police headquarters. By 8.15pm, people were venturing off the lot on to South Florissant Road, which separates the lot from the police station. As usual, they blocked passing vehicles. Along with more well-worn slogans, they chanted “Not just Jackson, we want Knowles”, demanding that Mayor James Knowles III also step down. Some approached police and sipped celebratory champagne.
As numbers grew, the Ferguson police called a “code 1000” over radios, summoning the closest 25 patrol cars to the station to assist with handling the protest. Riot gear was put on; shields and batons were reached for. At 9pm, one protester refusing to get out of the street was arrested and carried inside the police department, which sits on a complex with the city’s jail and municipal court.
“People were hyped up,” said a protester who was at the scene throughout the night. “They hadn’t been able to go out because of the weather. It had people in high emotions. The movement is a family, and this was a family reunion. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time.”
Before long, however, this reunion – as many do – descended into disagreements. “People had been fighting each other on the internet via Twitter,” said one prominent figure in the protest movement. “When they met up in person for the first time, it degenerated into real-life blows.”
Scuffles broke out within the protest – a rare sight. Darren Seals, a 27-year-old protester who had been complaining online about the influx of outsiders to St Louis demonstrations, confronted people he claims have personally profited through fundraising associated with protests in Ferguson. Seals told the Guardian he threw “no punches, just a slap”. Elsewhere, punches were traded over insulting comments one protester made to another. A female cousin of Michael Brown was caught up in one dispute, a protester said.
“A lot of it was just personal stuff,” said a protester who was involved the mêlée. “This is the disadvantage of there not being a leader of the movement, and nobody having the power to sit people down together in a room and thrash these things out.”
The following day, footage of these scraps from much earlier in the evening would be played on loop by cable television news channels, alongside headlines about the police officers being shot. The implication was clear: an angry night of protests had led directly to a shocking act of violence against police officers working to protect the public.
But four protesters vehemently disputed this. “No one involved in the fights was involved in the shootings,” said Keith Rose, an activist who was providing legal assistance to arrested protesters. “I know who those people were. I looked into it, I checked on their locations. Some were at the bottom of the hill by that point, and others had left.”
The protester who was caught up in the scuffles agreed. “It wouldn’t make sense,” he said. “If someone was angered enough by a fight to shoot somebody, they would have shot the person they were fighting. Not a cop. This is St Louis. People do drive-bys. And nobody would be stupid enough to try to shoot somebody outside the police station.”
At 10pm, as protests continued intensifying, a second “code 1000” was called, further bolstering the police presence outside the headquarters to about 70 officers. Two further arrests were made from the crowd in South Florissant Road – the night’s second at 10.30pm and a third at 11.15pm. But then the demonstration began to dwindle. People headed home.
“By about a quarter to midnight we are beginning to see not only the crowd beginning to leave but we’re also seeing the police officers leaving, at least some of them,” Belmar, who was himself asleep at home, said later.
The chief estimated that 75 protesters and about 40 officers remained. Most of the police, still clad in riot gear, were lined up across the entrance to the police headquarters. But the standoff had all but ended. A shrunken crowd of demonstrators shouted from the Wurm lot.
Then, at seven minutes past midnight, came the abrupt whoosh and pop, pop, pop of at least three shots. Protesters screamed, scattered north and south, many shouting expletives.
“I heard gunshots go off and felt a bullet whizz by my head,” said Rice. “I was like ‘wow’. I hid behind a car with my back to the passenger door, facing the police line.” In a Vine clip recorded moments later, Rice can be heard saying the shots “came from up Tiffin”.
The agonised cries of one of the officers struck were instantly audible on De Mian’s recording. “I saw the officer who was shot in the face hit the ground,” said Rice. “He was hollering and moaning. Not saying words but just screaming. Other officers were jumping around him tending to him. Some were scrambling to get out of the way.”
One bullet had zipped into the 32-year-old Webster Groves officer’s cheek, below his right eye. It lodged beneath his ear, where it remains as doctors assess whether its removal could cause nerve damage.
“It’s a really invasive procedure,” said Jeff Roorda,the St Louis Police Officers Association spokesman. “It’s not like these old western movies where they just pull out a pocket knife and ‘pop’, the bullet comes right out.”
Blood spattered on the viser of the officer’s riot helmet, which was apparently not pulled down. Roorda said the shot somehow circumvented the officer’s bones. “If it had entered his skull, he would be dead,” he said.
A second bullet entered the right shoulder of the St Louis County officer, 41, who was standing slightly side-on, and exited through his back, again missing vital organs by a few inches. Roorda visited him at home on Thursday.
“He was in really good spirits,” he said. “He was trying, for his family’s sake, to act as if nothing was wrong. He’s in a lot of pain, but didn’t want them to see that.”
Police and journalists flung themselves behind stout brick pillars that separate the sidewalk from the front lawn of the police headquarters. Some wide-eyed officers pointed handguns in the direction of the shooter while others rushed back to vehicles to pull out assault rifles and shotguns. Others assisted their two fallen colleagues.
A handful of protesters reacted with indifference. “Acknowledgment nine months ago would have stopped that from happening,” one shouted at the police. Others were dumbfounded and silent.
Misinformation abounded among police: some officers thought they had been victims of a drive-by shooting from a white car. Video filmed at close range behind the police line shows one of the wounded officers being carried back behind a van by colleagues.
“Son of a bitch,” the officer shouts.
For the next 10 minutes or so, police stood on guard as extra patrol cars and ambulances with lights flashing and sirens wailing pulled into the headquarters. Eventually, the phalanx of officers ventured out across the street, heading directly for hill of Tiffin Avenue. They ordered the few remaining protesters to keep their hands up as officers passed.
“You know it wasn’t us – it came from up there,” De Mian told them.
A photograph taken from behind the police line 15 minutes before the shots were fired shows all protesters gathered closely on the Wurm parking lot. The group does not spill further up towards the shooter’s apparent position. No one is visible at that spot, which is poorly lit and surrounded by trees.
“I don’t think anyone was walking up the street. All the protesters had their back towards Tiffin,” said Rice. “Protesters don’t go up there,” said Rose. “It’s a no-mans land. There’s no reason to go up there, so we never do.”
Lamont Underwood and Iresha Turner, who were seized later on Thursday morning in a dawn raid on their house, told the Guardian they fled up and over the hill towards their house on Dade Avenue when the shots rang out. But they deny any involvement in the shooting and were released without charge.
Forensics officers in jumpsuits were photographed later in the night collecting evidence at the top of the hill. Roorda said “really good sources” from within the police investigation had confirmed to him that .40-calibre shell casings were found there. David Klinger, the criminologist, said he had been told the same thing by informed people when visiting the scene the following day.
Other officers after the shooting corralled any remaining protesters into the parking lot of an adjoining strip mall, taking information such as their identities and addresses as they stood outside Subway, according to one who was there. “People felt like they were being bullied when they had nothing to do with it,” he said.
De Mian’s cellphone, which she operates with an extending pole from a wheelchair, was confiscated. Police ignored her pleas to allow her to archive the night’s footage before the device was shut down.
“They were fumbling with the buttons and people were screaming at them to give it back to her as she knew what to do,” said one protester. The original footage was lost. Fortunately it had been recorded by people viewing online, who published what they saw.
Belmar declined to confirm what kind of shell casings were found. But he said on Thursday morning a handgun appeared to have been used. Astonishment prevailed among many protesters that an average shooter could have struck a target from 450 feet with a pistol, while having to take into account the drop in elevation as the bullets flew. This has led to wild conspiracy theories among some on the fringes of the movement, that the shots were fired from a rifle by a police marksman in order to discredit their movement.
Yet Klinger said the hits on the officers were not, in fact, a remarkable achievement. “People should not be shocked,” he said. “It’s true that most of the time pistols are not used from that distance. But as any box of ammunition tells you, you should be careful even from a distance of a mile. Anything that is in sight distance is clearly possible.”
By aiming at a wide line of officers “this person was essentially trying to hit the broadside of a barn door”, said Klinger. “Any person with a semblance of understanding of how to aim a handgun would have a window of a couple of feet up and down and several metres side to side.”
As one protester put it: “The police were lined up like they were fighting an old-fashioned war: everyone stands in a line and shoots their muskets, and someone will get hit.”
Others have pointed out that .40-calibre ammunition is also used in some rifles, which could have aided the gunman’s accuracy. Asked on Friday whether his detectives were searching for a notably sophisticated gun user, Belmar said he doubted the suspect was “a marksman somewhere with a scope”. However, he said, “it may turn out to be”.