ST. LOUIS — The shooting death of an unarmed teenager just days before he would have started college has further clouded a tense atmosphere of mistrust and unease between police and the suburban community where Michael Brown Jr. died.
Part of what is stoking racial tensions in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is the refusal by local police to identify the officer accused of shooting Brown. Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing Brown’s family, said Tuesday the police’s actions do not give local residents much reason to believe in due process in the case.
“The fact that they won’t give the name of the officer…We believe in the rule of law, but it has to work both ways,” said Crump, who has also called for the community to remain calm after unrest and looting broke out in the wake of Brown’s death.
“It doesn’t give people faith,” the lawyer said, adding that if a white teen had been shot “on the other side of town,” the police probably would have released the officer’s name by now.
Crump said Tuesday that he has discussed with the family whether to take the matter to court to press the police department to reveal the name.
At a mass meeting at a church just outside of Ferguson, some community members expressed frustration that the officer’s name is still being withheld three days after Brown’s shooting.
“We were told we would hear the name tonight,” said Kim Taylor, 55, who lives in St. Louis and attended the meeting.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson initially said he would reveal the officer’s identity, but then didn't, citing concerns for the officer’s safety.
Maurice Hendricks, a 55-year-old community member who also participated in the peaceful meeting, said he disagrees with the police’s refusal to release the officer’s identity.
“I don’t think it would provoke us,” he said. “We want to know. By them not telling us, it looks like they’re trying to hide something, like they’re trying to get their stories straight.”
St. Louis County Police Department spokesman Brian Schellman said police are following policy by not releasing the officer’s name.
"It is the policy of the Police Department as well as the policy of the Prosecuting Attorney's office that no one under investigation, police officer or civilian, will be named unless that person is arrested or charged,” Schellman said in an email. “That is the policy for all cases.” (The St. Louis County Police are the local agency handling the investigation, since the officer involved in the shooting is a member of the Ferguson Police Department.)
What is known is that the officer is a six-year veteran of the department, and that he is on paid administrative leave pending the investigation, according to police. Several supporters at Tuesday’s mass meeting said that only three of the 53 officers in the St. Louis Police Department are black, fueling speculation that the unidentified officer is probably white.
Crump maintains that local authorities are bound by law to disclose the officer’s identity within 72 hours. He calls Jackson’s response an excuse.
“They play that card to try to act like our community can’t be responsible, can’t be nonviolent,” said Crump, who also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012. The Martin case is already being compared to Brown’s.
“Trayvon’s killer was not harmed in any way, fashion or form,” Crump added. “And the only one in Trayvon’s case that suffered violence is Trayvon."
Brown’s shooting death on Saturday has sparked peaceful gatherings and violent protests. More than three dozen people were arrested on Sunday amid protests and looting in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb, home to some 21,000. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
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Meanwhile, details remain unclear surrounding the circumstances of Brown’s death. There are conflicting accounts from witnesses and authorities. The autopsy hasn’t been released.
The FBI opened its own investigation into the shooting on Monday to determine whether civil rights violations occurred. Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who met with the family on Tuesday, are calling for an independent federal inquiry, including a separate FBI autopsy, because they say Brown’s family has no reason to trust local authorities will conduct a transparent and objective investigation.