Posted on October 31, 2014

On the Other Side of Ferguson’s Protest Lines, Officers Face New Threats

Dan Barry, New York Times, October 31, 2014

For nearly three years, a Ferguson police dispatcher named Marione Johnson has listened to the everyday conversation of this small city, the routine crackle and chatter about barking dogs and possible break-ins, about trees down and possible shots fired.

Ms. Johnson put in 25 years as a police officer in another town before Chief Thomas Jackson recruited her to dispatch officers here when appropriate. It was a familiar world to her, until that August day when a white Ferguson police officer shot to death an unarmed 18-year-old black man, and callers from across the country began condemning her and her colleagues as “baby killers” and worse.

“I’ve been called everything but a child of God,” Ms. Johnson, who is African-American, said.

She said that the animosity, found on social media and in protests just outside police headquarters, had been so virulent at times that she listened more carefully these days to calls requesting assistance before she sent an officer–for fear of a possible ambush.


Anxiety in Ferguson is escalating again, now that a decision by the grand jury investigating the killing of the teenager, Michael Brown, by Officer Darren Wilson seems imminent. Recent revelations, including an autopsy report and accounts of witness testimony, have only added to the tension, in part because they seem more exculpatory than supportive of calls for murder charges against Officer Wilson.


“We’re under siege,” the beleaguered Chief Jackson said this week, referring specifically to the nightly protests outside headquarters, but perhaps to himself as well. Speculation continues about his possible resignation, about a push to replace him, about St. Louis County taking over policing of the city.

The chief said that he had not been asked to resign and had no plans to leave. But he called these recent weeks “horrible” and added, “It is not uncommon for me to pull up at a light and have someone yell something offensive or put up their hands”–the gesture of surrender that some say Mr. Brown was making when he was shot.


Some of the actions taken by the Ferguson police after Mr. Brown’s death certainly fueled the ensuing outcry: leaving the body in the street for several hours, for example, and using heavy-handed force during the protests, at which hateful things were said from both sides of the so-called skirmish line.

But there is another side to this tragedy’s aftermath. It is not the only side, or the opposite side. Just another side.

“What I can’t understand is the constant hate,” Ms. Johnson said. “And the failure to be patient until there’s a thorough investigation.”

These days, Ferguson police officers say that they live as though someone out there intends to do them harm. They no longer wear their uniforms to or from work. They vary their routes back home. A few have relocated their families.

Even a simple stop for a soda at the Circle K has become unsettling, because of what the police describe as social-media talk about catching Ferguson officers off guard at the convenience store–and shooting them in the head.

“You are constantly wondering,” Sgt. Mike Wood, a Ferguson native, said. “I know I didn’t sign up with Burger King, but . . . .”

One afternoon this month, Sergeant Wood, 57, and Officer Gregg McDanel, 53, sat just down the hall from where Ms. Johnson works dispatch. The two men have a combined 45 years with the Ferguson police, but they say that not once in all those years did they have cause to wear a riot helmet–until now.

Now, they have become accustomed to standing in riot gear outside their workplace, where, they say, a small number of protesters have occasionally tossed bottles, rocks and words intended to goad. One night included the muzzle flash of a gun, they said.

Officer McDanel, who handles the evidence room, said that for the first time in his career, his wife had cried as he walked out the door, headed for work.

Late last month, a Ferguson officer was shot in the arm after coming upon an apparent break-in at the new community center. As dozens of officers, including Sergeant Wood, assembled at a nearby staging area, so did dozens of protesters, guided to the location by social media. Some, he said, shouted sentiments like “How does it feel?”

“It was sickening,” he said.

Into the station came Sgt. Harry Dilworth, 45, a 21-year veteran. As one of the few African-Americans on the force, he said, he has been targeted for particular abuse. “I’ve been called a racist,” he said. “A racist!”

An Army reservist, he has done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and the habits he acquired overseas serve him well these days in Ferguson. He sits farther back in his car seat, so that his body is blocked by the door post. At stoplights, he leaves space between his car and those around him. He watches his rearview mirror.

“We have to adapt to the inherent threats,” he said. “Back in July, I didn’t have a gun at my front door.”

Sergeant Dilworth said that these precautions were necessary because, several weeks ago, activist hackers made public the names and addresses of Ferguson officers, with the promise “to wreak hell on our lives.”

“I’ve canceled everything electronic,” he said. “I almost went to a rotary phone.”

Now, Sergeant Dilworth sometimes directs officers to set up perimeters of safety on what would have been routine calls. He also reminds them not to react to words, recalling one encounter in which a protester confronted an officer and screamed “about what he was going to do to his wife and daughter.”

“I told him not to listen to that garbage,” he said.