John Eligon and Richard Perez-Penamarch, New York Times, March 12, 2015
The two police officers who were shot here early Thursday were victims of “an ambush,” the St. Louis County police chief said, hours after gunfire rang out in front of the police station, throwing into panic what had been a largely peaceful protest.
The injured officers were released from the hospital Thursday morning.
“We’re lucky by God’s grace we didn’t lose two officers last night,” Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department said at a midmorning news conference. It was clear that the police were the targets, he said, adding, “This is really an ambush, is what it is.”
Echoing Chief Belmar’s comments, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., called the shootings “heinous and cowardly attacks.”
“This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson,” Mr. Holder said. “This was a damn punk, a punk, who was trying to sow discord.”
President Obama weighed in on Twitter, writing: “Violence against police is unacceptable. Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together.”
Later in the morning, in an action that officials said was part of the investigation into the shooting, police SWAT units surrounded a house a few blocks from the shooting scene, and officers climbed onto the roof and broke through a vent there to gain access.
“People have been taken in for questioning,” said a police spokesman, Sgt. Brian Schellman. “No arrests at this point.”
The City of Ferguson said in a statement that it was “diligently working to make systematic changes necessary to instill confidence,” but added, “we cannot continue to move forward under threats of violence and destruction.”
The officers who were shot Thursday were standing side by side, part of a cordon from multiple police departments, keeping protesters away from the police station. There had been as many as 69 officers in the evening, dwindling to about 49 at the time of the shooting, Chief Belmar said.
Chief Belmar said the shooting realized his worst fears over the months of unrest since Mr. Brown’s killing. “When you look at the tenor of at least some of the people involved in the protest or civil unrest, it can be troubling,” he said. “I think it’s a miracle that we haven’t had any instances similar to this over the summer and fall.”
He said officers had seen muzzle flashes, and later found shell casings that might have been from the shooting. Based on the sound of the shots and the officers’ wounds, he said, the weapon was a handgun, not a rifle.
The younger officer was shot in the cheekbone, just below his right eye, and the bullet lodged behind his right ear, Chief Belmar said. A bullet struck the other officer in the right shoulder, and exited his back on the right side. No officers returned fire.
Emotions quickly ran high after the shooting. One Ferguson officer, standing among the protesters as things calmed down, said, “This is what they wanted to happen.”
When a protester told him that no one wanted this to happen, the officer was adamant, saying that was his opinion and that the protester could differ if he wanted.
Protesters engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of sorts with the police. Dozens of them flooded into the street in front of the Police Department, blocking cars as they tried to pass. Things occasionally became tense between the protesters and motorists, some of whom refused to back away when demonstrators lined up in front of their vehicles. On several occasions, drivers inched forward, tapping the knees of protesters who dared them to hit them.
Each time, one side would eventually give in: Either the driver would back away, or the protesters would let them through. But on other occasions, police officers wearing helmets and clutching transparent shields and batons would race into the street to clear away the demonstrators. The police made a handful of arrests.
Some of the tensest moments came when the protesters fought among themselves. Some people urged others to block cars, while others urged their fellow demonstrators to get out of the street and direct their anger at the officers in front of the police station.
There were tussles between protesters who did not recognize one another, with the fault line appearing to be those who had been demonstrating for many months versus those who were new to the movement. Some took offense to the supposedly new protesters trying to tell them what to do. At one point, fistfights broke out in the street as the police stood by watching.
Officials said the police made three arrests–at about 9 p.m., 10:30 and 11:15. By the time of the last arrest, the protest was dying down, Chief Belmar said, and when the shooting occurred, there were about 75 demonstrators left in front of the station, down from about 150 earlier in the evening.