By Brandie Piper
FERGUSON, Mo. – Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Louis County police took over security near the Ferguson Police Department Thursday night after two officers were wounded by gunfire outside police headquarters in this city torn by racial unrest.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sharply condemned the shootings of police Wednesday night as a “disgusting and coward attack.”
“What happened last night was a pure ambush,” Holder said. “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk, a punk, who was trying to sow discord.”
The officers – from St. Louis County and Webster Groves – were shot while standing along S. Florissant Road directly in front of the Ferguson Police Department around midnight Thursday morning. They were rushed to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for treatment, and released later that morning.
During a news conference Thursday morning, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at least three shots were fired. The Webster Groves police officer, a 32-year-old who has been on the force seven years, was shot just under his right eye, in the high-cheek area. The bullet is lodged underneath his right ear. Belmar says he will need more medical evaluations to determine the best course of treatment.
The St. Louis County officer, a 41-year-old with 14 years of law enforcement experience, was shot in his right shoulder. The bullet traveled through his back and out between his scapula and spine. Belmar says the officers were targeted.
“I would have to make an assumption right now that based on the fact that these officers were standing together, and there were several officers standing right there when this happened, that these were shots that were parallel to the ground, not up in the air, they weren’t skip shots. And I would have to make an assumption that these shots were directed exactly at my police officers,” Belmar said during an overnight news conference outside the hospital.
He later elaborated, saying the officers were standing near each other in a line of 20 to 25 police officers. He said though the two took hard hits, it’s “remarkable” the officers didn’t suffer more serious injuries.
“We’re lucky. By God’s grace we didn’t lose two officers last night,” Belmar said.
Dr. Andrew Karanas is a trauma surgeon at SSM DePaul Health Center. He did not treat the officers, but has treated other victims of gunshot wounds. He said it is not completely unusual for a bullet to get stuck inside the body.
“There’s a lot of tissue for the bullet to go through and it slows down essentially. Some bullets will get lodged in muscle, which is thick, or even get lodged in bone,” he said.
Karanas said it’s also not unheard of for a gunshot victim to be released from the hospital so quickly. He said typically, medical professionals will conduct extensive testing on the victim before deciding their injuries are not life-threatening, and they can continue recovering at home.
Police said officers noticed muzzle flashes more than 100 yards away. Karanas said the chance for survival can increase if when bullets travel a longer distance.
“The longer distance, the bullet is going to slow down,” he said. “There will be less destructive damage that way.”
Belmar says the shots were fired from an area north-northwest of the department as demonstrators were moving out of the area. NewsChannel 5 photojournalist Bob Hoehn was there when it happened.
Hoehn said he was standing approximately 15 to 20 feet from a group of officers. He says the situation wasn’t tense, and he was considering packing up and leaving when he first heard what sounded like a firework. He saw a muzzle flash and heard additional shots. Hoehn sought shelter behind a brick wall.
When asked about security in the area moving forward, Belmar said it’s very difficult to sustain this kind of situation without injuries to the public or police officers.
“I think we need to re-evaluate that, and that’s one of the things I’ve been doing since my phone rang at midnight tonight,” said Belmar. “We’re going to be looking for different ways to approach this. Obviously my first priority is to the community, but that’s followed very very closely to my police officers and making sure that they’re able to do what they’re supposed to do out there in a safe manner.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was in St. Louis County Thursday where he was briefed by local officials. He said the highway patrol and county police will be sending additional officers in anticipation of more protests Thursday night.
“I ask Missourians to join me in calling for calm in the wake of the cowardly and reprehensible ambush of two police officers who were acting to protect the public,” Nixon said. “I also thank all the brave law enforcement officers who selflessly risk their lives each day to keep communities safe.”
Wednesday evening police in riot gear stood outside the police department while people protested in the streets. Some protesters complained in tweets that the uniforms the officers were wearing were from other jurisdictions.
Belmar says around 8:15 p.m. protesters started to block the road in front of the police department. He estimates there were approximately 150 demonstrators in the street blocking traffic, so officers put out a call for the 25 closest patrol cars to assist.
At 9 p.m. one person was arrested for blocking the road and other charges. A short time later police called for an additional 25 officers, bringing the total number of officers at the scene to 69.
Belmar says at 10:30 p.m. another protester was arrested for blocking the road, and a final arrest was made around 11:15 p.m.
He says the crowds started to diminish, and some police officers started to leave the scene. Belmar estimates there were approximately 75 demonstrators and 40 police officers standing outside the police department when three or four shots rang out around midnight. Belmar says the officers saw muzzle flashes about 125 yards away. Many officers drew their weapons but the only shots fired came from the suspect.
Belmar says the weapon was a pistol or a handgun. Officers recovered shell casings in the area where the shots were fired, but haven’t confirmed if the shell casings are from this shooting. He went on to say that situations like these are difficult to navigate because officers cannot evaluate all threats.
“This is really an ambush,” he said. “You can’t see it coming. You don’t understand that it’s going to happen and you’re basically defenseless from the fact that it is happening to you at the time. That is something that is very difficult to guard against when you have a group of officers standing in a large group and certainly gunfire directed at them.”
When asked if police have a suspect or a description of a suspect, Belmar declined to answer but said the shooting investigation is “the No. 1 priority right now for the St. Louis County Police Department.”
Brad Rayford, a freelance journalist covering the protest in Ferguson, also described the first shot as sounding like a firework. He was standing near a group of officers, and heard at least two more shots fire. He also saw a muzzle flash come from an area up a nearby hill.
Rayford said the area got quiet and officers started yelling at everyone to take cover.
DeRay McKesson, 29, one of the most visible protesters in Ferguson, was sitting in his car outside the Ferguson police station and about to tweet that the crowd was thinning out when he heard about four gunshots to his right.
“It was like pow, pow, pow, pow — like four consistent shots,” he said. “I was looking straight up at the police department and I see an officer fall and I see officers surround him.”
McKesson said protesters hit the ground as soon as the shots rang out and scattered trying to get to safety amid the chaos.
“Every single gun any officer had was drawn and they were all behind something,” he said, adding that officers ran and ducked behind cars and the department building.
Some of the demonstrators’ vehicles were blocked in by police cars, but they were released and allowed to go home around 2:30 a.m.
Jennifer Roller, a freelance producer with NBC, was also at the police department when the shots were fired. She told NewsChannel 5’s Ryan Dean she was standing near a small brick wall between the fire department and the police station. She said she also thought the loud pops were fireworks at first, but then police hit the ground and yelled at everyone to get down.
“Guns were drawn, and we were just, ‘Oh my gosh!'” said Roller.
She got behind the brick wall to seek shelter.
“The police officer, we could hear them saying, ‘One officer down or two officers down,’ and we heard them say there were two officers down,” said Roller.
She was standing behind the wall with several reporters when an officer said they needed to go to the back of a nearby parking lot for safety.
“So they told us, ‘As soon as we give you the word, start running to the back of this parking lot as fast as you can,'” said Roller.
While Belmar addressed the media at a 9 a.m. news conference, police searched a home in Ferguson. Officers could be seen on the roof of the house, and confirmed the search is related to the shooting. Three people were taken from the home in handcuffs but later released. No charges have been filed.
S. Florissant Road is closed between Tiffin and Adams while police continue to investigate.
CrimeStoppers is offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the subject(s) responsible for the shooting. The reward is only being offered to the first person to contact CrimeStoppers with the information leading to the arrest of the responsible suspects. Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 866-371-TIPS.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed represents the City of St. Louis, and sent a tweet overnight saying her prayers are with the wounded officers.
“I truly believe that every life, every law-abiding citizen should be outraged. Every law-abiding citizen should condemn the acts against any police officers, when it comes to violence,” Nasheed said during a live phone interview with NewsChannel 5. “Police officers serve and protect each and every day and police officers should be able to return home after serving the community. It’s just appalling that that cowardly act was taken by someone simply because they felt angry at police officers.”
Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the attack, calling it “inexcusable and repugnant.”
“Such senseless acts of violence threaten the very reforms that nonviolent protesters in Ferguson and around the country have been working towards for the past several months,” said Holder.
He said the Department of Justice is ready to assist in the investigation if necessary.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill released a statement Thursday morning saying, “This shooting is a criminal act that jeopardized the lives of police officers and protesters both. I hope the officers have a full recovery and pray for them and their families. It’s time for healing and reform, and acts of violence have no place in this process.”
Gov. Jay Nixon issued a statement calling the shooting “deeply troubling.” He says the Missouri State Highway Patrol is ready to assist in the investigation and urged anyone with information to come forward.
An Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson set off weeks of unrest and violence in the St. Louis suburb.
“I think it’s a miracle that we haven’t had any instances similar to this over the summer or fall,” Belmar said. “With the amount of gunfire that we would hear or I personally heard last summer and fall, I think it’s a miracle we haven’t had something like this happen.”
Wilson was not charged in Brown’s killing and the Justice Department found no reason to bring civil rights charges against him. But a Justice Department review found the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a broad pattern of racially biased enforcement that permeated the city’s justice system, including the use of unreasonable force against African-American suspects. The report also criticized the city’s municipal court system.
On Wednesday afternoon NewsChannel 5 learned Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, 57, will resign, effective March 19. He will receive a severance package of one year’s salary and health insurance. Earlier this week Judge Ronald Brockmeyerand City Manager John Shaw submitted their resignations after the DOJ reports were released.
Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff is serving as acting chief until the city completes a nationwide search for a new police chief.
St. Louis County Executive Steve told NewsChannel 5’s Kay Quinn Wednesday afternoon he has met with Ferguson Mayor James Knowles to tell him St. Louis County police stand read, if called upon, to provide policing for the Ferguson community. During a news conference later that day announcing Jackson’s resignation, Knowles said they have no intention at this time to disband the police department.
Shortly after the shooting on Thursday, the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter started trending on social media.
Contributing: USA Today.