AS unrest over the police shooting of a black teenager began to subside, emotions flared afresh yesterday after
local police identified the officer involved and released evidence that the victim robbed a convenience store moments before being shot.
The manner in which Missouri police released the information, which included a 19-page report on the robbery but no new details about the shooting, led to the spectacle of duelling police news conferences, one led by a white officer who seemed ill at ease and defensive, and the other dominated by a charismatic black officer who expressed solidarity with the crowd even as he pleaded for peace.
The white officer, Thomas Jackson, the police chief in Ferguson, gave a series of incomplete accounts that sowed confusion about whether the officer who shot 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown knew he was a suspect in the robbery.
The black officer, Captain Ronald S Johnson of the state Highway Patrol, expressed his displeasure at how the information had been released.
“I would have liked to have been consulted,” he said pointedly about the pairing of the shooter’s identity with the robbery accusation.
All week, residents had demanded the name of the officer who killed Brown about midday last Saturday, but when it finally came, it was accompanied by surveillance video that appeared to show Brown shoving a shop assistant aside as he stole a box of cigarillos.
Brown’s family, their lawyer and others in the community expressed disgust, accusing the police of trying to divert attention from the central issue – the unexplained shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
“It is smoke and mirrors,” said Benjamin L Crump, a lawyer for the Brown family, of the robbery allegations. “Nothing, based on the facts before us, justifies the execution-style murder by this police officer in broad daylight.”
The videotapes seemed to contradict the image portrayed by Brown’s family of a gentle boy opposed to violence and on his way to college.
Johnson, who grew up in the area and had been brought in by the governor on Thursday to restore peace after days of confrontations between demonstrators and the police in riot gear and military-style vehicles, said he had not been told that the authorities planned to release the video of the robbery along with the name of the officer. But he sought to calm people down, saying: “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house.”
Johnson won over many but also faced scepticism over his role along with anguished questions about who the police really represent and the lack of educational and economic opportunities in Ferguson.
“I find it utterly disgusting,” one man shouted at him. “What am I supposed to tell my people? It looks like you’re a figurehead.”
Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, stood next to Johnson at their news conference and emphasised that the details released on Friday were not “the full picture”.
He added: “The focal point here remains to figure out how and why Michael Brown was killed and to get justice as appropriate in that situation.”
Later on Friday, the US justice department, which is conducting a separate civil rights investigation into the killing, announced that teams of FBI agents would be canvassing the neighbourhood where the shooting took place in the next few days.
The day began when Jackson said at a news conference that the officer who shot Brown was Darren Wilson, who has served four years in Ferguson and two in another local department and had no disciplinary charges.
Wilson, who is white, has been placed on leave, and his whereabouts are unknown.
But the release of his name was overshadowed by the simultaneous announcement of the robbery allegations, leading to questions about timing and motives.
In a later news conference on Friday afternoon at Forestwood Park, a sports complex in Ferguson, Jackson said that Wilson had not been aware that Brown “was a suspect in the case” and instead had stopped him and a companion “because they were walking down the street blocking traffic”.
But that only highlighted the central issue: how did an officer’s interaction with an unarmed young man escalate into a deadly shooting?
The videotapes, from an unidentified convenience store, show a tall burly man, identified by the police as Brown, shoving aside an assistant as he left the premises with an unpaid-for box of Swisher Sweets cigarillos.
According to a police report, Brown was accompanied at the store by his friend Dorian Johnson, who was also with him when he was shot.
Dorian Johnson has admitted being in the convenience store with Brown and told investigators from the FBI and St Louis County that Brown did “take cigarillos,” Johnson’s lawyer, Freeman Bosley jnr, a former mayor of St Louis, told MSNBC.
Standing near a store that was vandalised during protests this week, Mark Jackson, who has participated in the demonstrations, expressed scepticism about police motives in describing the robbery.
“They just want to make the case seem more reasonable on their side,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the man didn’t have a gun, so they didn’t have to shoot him.”
In his afternoon appearance, the local police chief sought to explain why the information was released on Friday.
“All I did was release the videotape because I had to,” Jackson said. “I had been sitting on it.” He said his hand was forced by requests by the news media under public records law.
He acknowledged that he had not alerted the other police departments about the tape. “I should have done that,” he said.
Police chief Jackson described Wilson as “a gentle, quiet man” and “a distinguished officer”. Greg Kloeppel, a lawyer for the union representing Ferguson police, said Wilson received an award for “extraordinary effort in the line of duty” in February.
The police have not released the official report on the shooting because it is now the subject of federal and local investigations.
In the robbery report released on Friday, an officer wrote that “it is worth mentioning that this incident is related to” the fatal shooting of Brown. After seeing Brown’s body and reviewing the surveillance video, “I was able to confirm that Brown is the primary suspect” in the robbery, the officer wrote.
Any suggestion that Wilson sought out Brown and Johnson because they were robbery suspects, however, was dispelled by the police chief at the afternoon news conference. Adding to the day’s confusion, Jackson told The St Louis Post-Dispatch later that while Wilson did not originally approach the two youths as suspects, he was aware of the nearby store robbery. Once Wilson saw cigars in Brown’s hand, he “realised he might be the robber,” Jackson said.
After the revelations of the day, the atmosphere in Ferguson on Friday night remained peaceful, though boisterous. Cars clogged streets as horns blared and music played. Hundreds of demonstrators clutched signs and chanted slogans, but many others danced to music. On one street, six people danced on top of a white delivery truck.
The Highway Patrol police presence – following the withdrawal of heavily armed county forces – was limited. But among the officers on the street was Captain Johnson who walked among the crowds shaking hands.
“I’m pleased with how it’s going,” he said.