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Two police offices are shot in Ferguson

Two police offices are shot in Ferguson

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UPDATED at 2:55 p.m. with highway patrol, St. Louis County police taking over protest security in Ferguson beginning tonight; rewards being offered.

FERGUSON •  The Missouri Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police will take over Ferguson protest security Thursday night after two police officers were shot outside the police department there early Thursday morning.

Ferguson police will continue to handle routine policing services in the city, St. Louis County Police said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

The two officers shot early Thursday are expected to survive, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said. They were treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and released Thursday, though one still had a bullet lodged behind his ear.

Belmar called the shooting as protests outside the department dwindled an "ambush" on police. At least three shots were fired at police just after midnight as police faced protesters who had gathered outside the police station, police said.

On Thursday morning, officers swarmed a home in Ferguson in their search for those responsible for the shooting of the two police officers.

Tactical officers surrounded a brick bungalow on Dade Avenue near Tiffin Avenue. The home is about four blocks west of the police department. Officers went in with dogs about 9:30 a.m. A neighbor said he saw police bring two men out of the home. The woman who neighbors say rents the home was also brought out in handcuffs.

Police said they were questioning the three but they were not under arrest. They declined to provide further details.

Martez Little, 25, of north St. Louis County, said he was in a car Wednesday night near the Ferguson police station with the woman taken into custody Thursday. Little said they witnessed the shooting.

"Bullets were flying past us," Little said. "We heard them whistling by and saw two officers drop to their knees."

Immediately after the shooting, Little said he put his hands up and showed police his waistband to make sure they knew he was not armed.

"The shots were coming off a hill but we didn't see nobody shooting," he said.

He said he went to the protest because he still has questions about the shooting of Michael Brown, but called the shooting of the officers wrong.

OFFICERS RELEASED AFTER TREATMENT

Belmar discussed the shootings Thursday morning at the St. Louis County Police Commissioners board room. He said one officer injured in the shooting was with his department. The other is a Webster Groves Police officer. Both were treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, but have been released.

The Webster Groves officer was shot just below his right eye and that the bullet was lodged just below the officer's right ear, Belmar said. That officer is 32 and has been on the force for five years.

The bullet that hit the county officer in the right shoulder exited from the right side of his back, Belmar said. That officer is 41 and has been in law enforcement for 14 years.

Belmar said he believes the shots came from a handgun, not a rifle, based on the injuries and the sound of the shots.

The chief said no suspects have been identified in the shootings but that detectives recovered shell casings near the scene. He said it was not clear if those shell casings were from the shooting. He said some witnesses have been "forthright" in helping police with the investigation.

"We're lucky by God's grace that we didn't lose those two officers last night," Belmar said. "We could have buried two police officers next week because of this."

The officers had been standing in a line of about 25 officers when the shots were fired. The gunfire came from the area of a parking lot about 125 yards away and were "parallel to the ground," Belmar said, leading him to believe the officers were targeted.

"When you listen to the audio (in video from the scene), you can actually hear those shots singing," Belmar said.

The chief said that 60-70 protesters had come to the Ferguson Police Department earlier in the night, some of them blocking roads and sidewalks. The protests prompted police departments to send officers, some in riot gear. At least three arrests were made during the protests before the shots were fired. That came later in the night as the protest began to dwindle.

Belmar said he felt police have been fortunate since protests erupted in Ferguson in August after the police shooting of Michael Brown in that officers patrolling those protests have not been injured.

"I think it's a miracle that we haven't had any instances such as this over the summer and fall," Belmar said Thursday.

The chief said one of the biggest challenges facing police on the protest lines is discerning peaceful protesters from troublemakers.

"This is another layer that makes it very difficult for our officers out there," he said.

Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement Thursday offering the Justice Department's "full range of investigative resources." He noted that "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."

Speaking later Thursday, Holder described the shooting as the actions of a "damn punk" who was "trying to sow discord."

LEADERS REACT, REWARDS OFFERED

CrimeStoppers is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the shooting. They asked anyone with information to call 1-866-371-8477. Tipsters can remain anonymous, and tips can also be submitted online at www.stlrcs.org or texted  along with "STL" to 274637.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, added a $3,000 reward for information in the shooting.

“I completely condemn the cowardly ambush of the brave officers who were wounded last night in Ferguson,” Clay said in a joint statement with Cleaver. “I ask everyone to join me in prayers for their swift recovery and for healing in our community. The path of violence does not lead to justice.”

Added Cleaver in the statement: “What happened in Ferguson last night was a terrible tragedy, and we cannot stand idly by as others transgress. We encourage anyone who has information to come forward.”

Other politicians responded with messages about the shootings Thursday. 

"Violence against police is unacceptable," President Barack Obama tweeted from the @WhiteHouse account. "Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together."

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he had been notified of the shooting overnight, and that he had talked with both Belmar and with Department of Justice officials about the shootings Thursday morning.

He said the shooting showed the dangers confronted by police, and Blunt used that point to assert that police had not overreacted initially after the Aug. 9 shooting. Blunt said claims that there had been police "militarization" in Ferguson were "totally fact free."

"The police are trying to get home to their families alive," Blunt said. "They have a hard job to do."

And U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the shootings "a criminal act that jeopardized the lives of police officers and protesters both. I hope the officers have a full recovery and pray for them and their families. It's time for healing and reform, and acts of violence have no place in this process."

Gov. Jay Nixon also released a statement. "My thoughts and prayers go out to these brave officers and their families," the statement said in part. "Each day, our law enforcement officers risk their lives to protect the public and the fact that these officers appear to have been intentionally targeted is deeply troubling."

He said the Missouri Highway Patrol has been in contact with St. Louis County Police and troopers stand ready to help.

"It is imperative that anyone with information about the shooting immediately come forward so that those who perpetrated these senseless crimes can be apprehended and brought to justice,” Nixon said in the statement.

Ferguson Councilwoman Kim Tihen, woke to the news that two officers had been shot.

"I'm concerned about escalating violence, especially against our officers," she said. "They've endured so much stress already."

Tihen, who spent four years as a Ferguson police officer, now works as a detective in another municipality. She represents the First Ward in Ferguson, which is on the northeast side of town. She has been on the council about three years.

"We want peace in our community," she said.

With all of the big changes at the top, namely the resignations of the police chief and city manager,  Tihen said she wonders what would satisfy the protesters.

"I'm not sure what more they want," she said. "I would like to ask them come to us, tell us what we can do to continue to heal the community."

"We are willing to work with them, the protesters in general," she said.

SPECIAL REPORT: Post-Dispatch special report on Ferguson

TIMELINE: The events as they unfolded

 

PROTESTS DWINDLE, THEN SHOTS RING OUT

The gunfire was captured on video by some of those at the scene.

After the shots were fired, the scene turned chaotic. Some protesters dropped to the ground. Others fled the scene.

Several members of the media, including a Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer, were near the officers who were shot.

Media and police ran behind two brick walls and officers pulled out their weapons. Then a line of police cars from more than a dozen departments arrived.

Police closed South Florissant Road in front of the police station and cordoned a section of the area off with crime scene tape.

Belmar said the shots were fired from across Florissant Road, northwest of the police department. Witnesses said the shots appeared to come from the direction of a block of homes on Tiffin Avenue that intersects South Florissant Road, where the police department is located. 

Bradley Rayford, a freelance journalist who has been reporting from Ferguson since the unrest began there last summer, said he saw three or four muzzle flashes from the crest of Tiffin Avenue, a residential neighborhood with large century-old homes atop a hill that overlooks the police station."

He was in front of the police line on South Florissant at the time. He said he couldn't tell if the shots were being fired from a vehicle.

At 2:30 a.m. a contingent of about 25 officers ascended the hill and began scouring the front yard of a home directly behind a tire business, their flashlights sweeping in arcs as they searched for evidence.

The gunfire rang out as the protests seemed to be dwindling. 

About 25 protesters remained at the scene about two hours after the shooting. Police wouldn't let them leave until they gave statements.

The protesters seemed to be two camps. The first were there to make a point that they weren't satisfied with the resignations of City Manager John Shaw and Police Chief Thomas Jackson. They were chanting in unison. 

The other one was volatile, angry, hurling profanities at the police, media and other protesters. Some skirmishes broke out among the factions.

At least two people were taken into custody, but those arrests occurred before the gunfire erupted.

Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to contact CrimeStoppers at 1-866-371-8477.

Live updates: Tweets from reporters in Ferguson

Gallery: Images from the protests and the shooting aftermath

Video: Eyewitness reporter describes shootings

Video: Chief Jon Belmar discusses the shootings

Susan Weich, Christine Byers, Paul Hampel, Kim Bell and Joel Currier, all of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this story.

Story is developing. Check back for details.

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