St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the shooting of two police officers at the end of what had been peaceful protests outside the Ferguson Police Department Wednesday night “an ambush,” and said that finding those responsible is his agency’s top priority.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that tactical officers swarmed a home in Ferguson on Thursday morning, taking away two men and one woman. No arrests have been made.
Neither officer has been identified by name. One, a 32-year-old with the Webster Groves Police Department, was shot in the face. The other, a 41-year-old St. Louis County officer, was shot in the shoulder. Authorities said both officers were released from the hospital on Thursday morning.
“These two officers took a very hard hit,” Belmar said. “We’re lucky, by God’s grace, we didn’t lose two officers last night.”
At the time of the press conference, there were no suspects in custody, though Belmar said several people “have been forthright” with the investigation.
Belmar said the protests were ending at the time of the shooting, which occurred just after midnight. By then, he said, the crowd had dwindled to several dozen people and about 40 officers.
Police shine a light on a helmet as they investigate the scene where two police officers were shot. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Belmar said that based on shell casings found near the scene, the shots likely came from a handgun.
Alexis Templeton, a St. Louis resident who has been protesting regularly in Ferguson for more than nine months, had just left Wednesday’s protests when shots rang out.
“People were chanting … it reminded me of August,” Templeton said. “It’s warm outside now. The aura was very familiar.”
Templeton, who is from the area, said she was not surprised to hear that heard the shots came from a hill behind the protesters.
“It’s dark up there at night, and you can’t see,” she explained. “You can stand at the top of that hill and you can shoot somebody. Somebody could’ve stepped outside of their house and shot somebody.”
Before the shootings, Templeton said the night had been largely celebratory, with protesters toasting apple cider in champagne glasses at the news of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation earlier in the day, while still calling for Mayor James Knowles III to step down.
The city manager, a judge, and two police officers have been fired in the wake of the Department of Justice’s report outlining a pattern of racial discrimination and abuse of power by Ferguson’s police department and municipal court system.
In a statement Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the shootings as “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,” Holder said.
Belmar also said that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish peaceful protesters from those who may be at the protests “for the wrong reasons.”
“This is beginning to be … at times … difficult for any law enforcement agencies to wrap their arms around,” he said.
Responding to Belmar’s comments, Templeton said any implication that protesters were involved “doesn’t add up.”
“The night we get some sort of victory, we go out and shoot the cops? That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Ferguson has been in the national spotlight since 18-year-old unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August. The shooting sparked unrest in the city and across the country and brought attention to the issue of racial discrimination in community policing.
Protests, as well as calls for reform and the resignations of the city’s leadership, began in Ferguson almost immediately following Brown’s death. Though largely peaceful, the protests were marred early on by looting and rioting, and violent clashes with police in riot gear and equipped with semi-automatic weapons and armored vehicles.
Brown’s family has condemned violence in the wake of their son’s death. On Thursday, family attorney Benjamin Crump issued a statement reading: “We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement. It cannot and will not be tolerated. We specifically denounce the actions of stand-alone agitators who unsuccessfully attempt to derail the otherwise peaceful and nonviolent movement that has emerged throughout this nation to confront police brutality and to forward the cause of equality under the law for all.”
Templeton said she plans to return to the Ferguson Police Department for Thursday night’s planned protests, but added that protesters, not police, could now be a target.
“There’s a lot of people in that community who are ready for protesters to go home,” she said. “If anything, it gets more dangerous for us. People plan on being at the Ferguson Police Department tonight … Who knows what’s going to happen?”