POLICE have stocking up on riot gear to prepare for a grand jury’s decision about whether to charge a white police officer who fatally shot a black 18-year-old in a suburb of St Louis.
The preparations are aimed at avoiding a renewed outbreak of violence that could follow an announcement of whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will face a criminal trial for the death of Michael Brown on 9 August.
Police and protesters have repeatedly clashed since the shooting. Images of officers in riot gear and armoured vehicles confronting protesters have drawn widespread criticism.
Many protesters want officer Wilson indicted for murder. Grand jury proceedings are secret, but recently leaked information about officer Wilson’s testimony to investigators may be an attempt to prepare the public for the possibility that he might not be charged.
The decision could be made public within the next month.
In the meantime, police have changed tactics, aiming to interact more peacefully with protesters while also honing their procedures for quick, widespread arrests. They plan to have a large contingent of officers at the ready, but have been meeting clergy, community leaders and students in the hope of easing tensions on the streets.
“I know there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of fear, anticipation” about that announcement, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who was put in charge of security in Ferguson in the days after Brown was killed and is now part of a co-ordinated command with local police. But “I have a lot of hope”, he added.
Law enforcement officers expect to receive at least a day’s notice before a grand jury announcement. That should provide time for them to execute security plans but may also allow demonstrators to prepare.
“The moment I learn that there is, in fact, a non-indictment, then there’s going to be an organised protest,” said Eric Vickers, a black St Louis lawyer and civil rights activist.
Mr Brown was unarmed when officer Wilson encountered him walking in the street with a friend. A scuffle ensued and Mr Brown was shot multiple times. Witness accounts vary, with some people saying they saw Mr Brown raise his hands as if in surrender.
Officer Wilson told investigators he felt threatened while fighting with Brown inside a police SUV, where an initial gunshot was reportedly fired. After Mr Brown fled the vehicle, officer Wilson said he turned around in threatening manner, prompting the officer to fire the fatal shots, according to those accounts of his testimony.
Officer Wilson’s description of events was leaked recently, as was an autopsy report that showed Mr Brown had marijuana in his system and was shot in the hand at close range. Officer Wilson has alleged Mr Brown was trying to grab his gun..
“It appears that it may be calculated to soften the blow if there is no indictment,” said Peter Joy, a law professor at St Louis’s Washington University.