Deluged with questions and outrage after the killing of an unarmed teen by police in Ferguson, authorities at times seemed to get nothing right.
First there were statements by the St. Louis County police chief, whose agency was called in for an independent investigation, that seemed to reflexively take the side of the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown, 18.
As public anger grew, the FBI was brought in. Calls for details — including the Ferguson officer’s name — were rejected. Then came mass protests, looting, an arson and a paramilitary response to crowd control.
Finally, the nation winced as officers gassed a reporting crew and dismantled their equipment, arrested two journalists and pulled a St. Louis alderman from his car. A live stream of night-vision images rendered River City to the world as a landscape from the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops.”
Over the chaotic days and nights, police tactics changed the question from whether one police officer violated one man’s civil rights to whether civil rights are systematically violated in St. Louis.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Claire McCaskill decried the militarized response. Gov. Jay Nixon installed the Highway Patrol to command the security of Ferguson, taking that responsibility away from the St. Louis County police. Two St. Louis city police commanders, including St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, will advise him.
Nixon hinted at a lack of transparency, calling the release of the officer’s name an “important milestone” that should be reached soon.
The heavy-handed police tactics drove a wedge between the two biggest police agencies in the area: the city and county police departments, which work closely on regional policing efforts and increasingly share resources.
Dotson said he stopped sending officers to help with crowd control on Tuesday.
“My gut told me what I was seeing were not tactics that I would use in the city, and I would never put officers in situations that I would not do myself,” he said.
Dotson’s comments upset some of the rank-and-file, said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
“Our membership feels we should be there in every way necessary for the county police and Ferguson officers and anyone else who is in the middle of these tensions,” he said.
Mistakes by police in Ferguson will have long-lasting repercussions for St. Louis and for the nation, said David M. Kennedy, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, at the City University of New York. Kennedy developed the Operation Ceasefire, a nationally acclaimed anti-violence program.
“Military people will tell you that in military settings, in active war zones, they don’t sit on the top of their trucks pointing live weapons at the populace,” he said. “Under no circumstances do you begin your deployment with citizens of the United States by pointing live weapons at them.”
But Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson defended SWAT units Thursday, saying they are necessary to handle “deadly force” situations.
Kennedy said the episode exposed a rift between the police and the public they are supposed to serve.
“The community is looking at the incident but in a very real way they’re looking at all the incidents — not just in their community but across the country, where awfully similar things have happened and young black men were killed by the police, and everyone says fundamentally this is OK and it’s the dead guy’s fault and the police are justified in what they did.”
Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, and an expert in police accountability, said statements by county police Chief Jon Belmar in the early hours of the police investigation — when he said the officer shot Brown after a struggle for his weapon — were premature, and suggested to the public that the investigation had already drawn conclusions.
Among people who were upset by the comment was St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said Dooley’s chief of staff, Pat Washington. She said Dooley had a meeting with Belmar after the statement to the media, where Belmar clarified that he was relaying only the Ferguson officer’s version of events.
Dooley “had a concern about it and that’s why he had a conversation with the chief about it and try to understand what was intended,” she said. “I think (Belmar) understands that people may have taken his comments in a way that he didn’t intend.”
Belmar declined to comment Thursday.
Walker said he could understand why people wouldn’t trust the police after the early support for the officer’s version. “You can say, ‘No comment at this time. We have not completed the investigation. We haven’t even barely begun the investigation at this point.’”
What larger impact St. Louis will feel is unclear. On Thursday, some business owners publicly worried about devastation to the region’s economy.
If you ask Bob Cooper, the concerns could be well founded. Cooper, 56, a computer executive who lives in Charlotte, N.C., told a reporter that in two weeks he is taking his wife and two children, 8 and 12, on a road trip to San Francisco.
They had booked two nights in St. Louis to visit the Gateway Arch and the brewery.
After what happened in Ferguson, they crossed St. Louis off their itinerary.
Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said that St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar did not attend Gov. Jay Nixon's press conference. Belmar did attend the press conference, but did not speak.)