Police breaking a weeklong silence and revealing the name of the officer involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager was supposed to be a step towards healing a fracture community.
Instead, the decision by Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson to accompany the release of the officer’s name with a police report alleging the teenager to have taken part in a robbery shortly before the shooting sparked more outrage in the St. Louis suburb.
That outrage grew later in the day after Jackson admitted the officer – 28-year-old Darren Wilson – was not aware that Michael Brown was a robbery suspect at the time of the shooting. He stopped him and a companion, Jackson said, “because they were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic.”
The release of the information drew a quick rebuke Brown’s family, who called it an attempt to divert attention from the killing.
“The family feels that was strategic,” Anthony Gray, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said during a news conference Friday. “They feel it was aimed at denigrating their son. It was an attempt at character assassination.”
Jackson denied the family’s allegations, saying he decided to release the report and accompanying surveillance video because “I had to. Too many people put in (freedom of information) requests for it.”
To many members of the community, Jackson’s decision feels like a slap in the face, said Shyroun Ridgel, a resident of nearby Jennings and a pastor at Higher Ground Community Outreach Center.
“If feels like the chief of police is trying to incite us by releasing that information,” she said.
After five days of violence, with heavily armed police officers using tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, calm finally prevailed Thursday night. Police changed their tactics under the command of Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, abandoning military-style gear and focusing on mingling with protesters and giving them space to demonstrate.
Johnson, who grew up in the community, was put in charge Thursday by Gov. Jay Nixon in an attempt to calm the situation on the streets of Ferguson.He said he had not been told that local police were going to be releasing the information.
“I would have liked to have been consulted,” he said.
Fielding questions from the media and residents early in the day, Nixon said the release of the officer’s identity will be but one critical step in the process of investigating the death of Brown.
Each step, he said, runs the risk of inflaming the situation.
“I think there are going to be some bumps along this road to justice,” he said.
Johnson, who has won high praise from community members, said he believes the violence the community has seen is a thing of the past.
“This inner anger, we have to make sure we don’t burn down our own house,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t prove a point. That does not solve the issue. That hurts this community, and that’s what I don’t want.”
According to the records released Friday, police received a 911 call reporting a robbery at Ferguson Market. An officer dispatched to the scene described a man who stole cigars and fled down the street with another man.
Stolen, according to reports, was a box of Swisher Sweets Cigars valued at $48.99. The suspects were identified as 18-year-old Michael Brown and 22-year-old Dorian Johnson.
Wilson, who has been with the Ferguson Police for four years, encountered Michael Brown walking down Canfield Drive. The documents contained no description of what happened between Brown and Wilson, and investigators have refused to release that information.
But within minutes of their encounter, Wilson shot and killed Brown. Police have said Brown struggled with Wilson in his car and that the officer sustained injuries. Several eyewitnesses said Brown was shot while retreating with his hands raised.
“Even if he was suspected of robbery, he was unarmed,” said Michelle Foster, 47 of Florissant.
The visual of Brown raising his hands above his head in surrender inspired the battle cry for the protest movement in Ferguson, with crowds chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”
Jackson described Wilson as “a gentle, quiet man” who had been “an excellent officer.” He’s been on the Ferguson force for four years. Prior to that, he patrolled in the neighboring community of Jennings, Jackson said.
According to USA Today, a police officer keeping watch over Wilson’s home said he had left town with his family days ago.