JEFFERSON CITY • For months, critics have questioned why the Missouri National Guard did not respond more quickly as buildings burned along Ferguson’s main business corridors.
But even had guardsmen arrived sooner that night in November, interviews and newly released documents show they would not have had the authority to stop the violence.
The Guard was never meant to engage with protesters, Adjutant Gen. Stephen Danner said on Tuesday. Troops were to stand guard over sites critical to the region, sometimes as invisibly as possible, documents show.
Guardsmen were not authorized to shoot to protect property in Ferguson, make arrests, or even stop people from committing most crimes.
“That was never the plan, to have the Guard in Ferguson,” Danner said. “When you’re dealing with a civil disturbance and a tightknit group of folks coming at you, you cannot string your soldiers down the street like so many parking meters. That is a danger to them.”
Moreover, the Guard’s late arrival on Nov. 24, after violence swept through Ferguson, wasn’t his call. The Guard was waiting for orders from the Missouri Highway Patrol, Danner said.
And the Highway Patrol’s field operations commander, Maj. Bret Johnson, said he simply couldn’t see how the Guard would help, at that moment, without taking lives.
Gov. Jay Nixon’s office released on Tuesday hundreds of pages of internal Guard memos, emails, troop orders and timelines in response to a months-old Post-Dispatch public records request. A joint legislative committee has also requested the records, and plans to investigate Nixon’s decisions in Ferguson.
The documents together show a coordinated effort to prepare for the grand jury ruling regarding Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9.
Protesters took to the streets for nights after Brown’s death. The police response in those early days drew scathing national and international criticism, often accusing public officials of an overmilitarized response that incited violence.
The documents show state officials working to change that image, as well as planning their response to the anticipated grand jury announcement.
In a joint interview on Tuesday at National Guard headquarters, Danner and Johnson explained that the state had studied unrest and military response throughout the nation’s history, and wanted to avoid civilian deaths.
“And we made that decision to choose life over property,” Johnson said. If the Guard had tried to stop the arson and looting on Nov. 24, “the only way to stop that, with the amount of people there, would have been with deadly force. We would have used citizen soldiers against our citizens of the state of Missouri.”
The Guard had warned, in a presentation sent to Nixon’s office in October, that it needed to mobilize and “stage” National Guard early to “mitigate potential POTUS insurrection act authority use” — to prevent President Barack Obama from sending troops to Missouri.
In November, St. Louis County asked the Highway Patrol — which was coordinating the National Guard response — to provide troops at the Ferguson Police Department, along West Florissant Avenue, and in the Canfield Green apartments, where Brown was shot.
The patrol agreed to place the Guard at the airport, at shopping malls, at hotels hosting area law enforcement and around the county government buildings in Clayton.
But it wanted troops off the front lines. “Governor’s intent to minimize external public appearance,” the mission sets noted regarding deployment in Clayton. “Will place soldiers inside buildings at doors, stairwells, garages and other points of entry… to support (police) in the event they overrun.”
And state officials wouldn’t put troops in Ferguson.
Sets of mission plans explain that deploying troops in Canfield (where armored Humvees were requested by the county) and at the police station do “not appear to meet Governor’s intent for initial National Guard use.”
The Guard did send troops down South Florissant Road and West Florissant Avenue, the area’s two main business arteries, in the days following the grand jury announcement in late November.
But those locations weren’t even on the mission list in the days before the announcement.
Late on the evening of Nov. 24, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that the grand jury had decided Wilson should not be prosecuted by his office. A large crowd had already gathered outside the Ferguson police station. Within minutes, small groups broke off and bolted down West Florissant.
Within hours, police cars were burning along the roadside.
That night, fires gutted about a dozen businesses in the area.
Hundreds of angry residents wrote Nixon that night. Some called for his resignation. Some wrote as they watched buildings burn around them.
“I’m keeping looters from getting in the stores over here and I’m doing it by myself,” Andre Akins, who identified himself as a soldier, wrote early on the morning of the 25th. “I stop somebody from trying to set fires here and kept them from taking any more items out of the stores. I’m doing this on my own free will. SO WHERE ARE THE TROOPS.”
Danner said troops arrived just before 1 a.m.
“I will just say, from the Guard, we deployed as soon as we were called,” Danner said. The Highway Patrol notified the Guard at 11:16 p.m., “and we were on site about an hour and a half later, about 10 minutes to 1,” he said.
Danner wouldn’t say he wanted to send troops earlier. He said the decision was for leaders on the ground and the unified command, which included the Highway Patrol, county police and the St. Louis Police Department.
And even had they arrived sooner, they could not necessarily have stopped the looting and fires, Danner said. Guardsmen, he said, were the “eyes and ears of the Highway Patrol,” and weren’t authorized to make arrests.
And they could only fire their weapons if they feared imminent death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others, documents show.
In planning for the grand jury announcement, the command staff met with a coalition of protesters, Johnson said. They built a plan to keep police out of riot gear. The protesters contended those tactics had incited violence in August, he said.
“If that was the case and we’re trying to do everything from our part to keep things calm, why would we have military soldiers in areas we knew were going to be active protest areas?” said Johnson, whom Nixon has nominated to become the next patrol superintendent.