Outcry over Mo. shooting makes race relations 'a top priority'

FERGUSON, Mo. — After four days of angry calls for reform and tear gas lobbed at protesters, the city's police chief said Wednesday that healing racial discord here has become a "top priority" and he welcomes outside help.

"Race relations is a top priority right now," Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said. "I've been trying to increase the diversity of the department since I got here."

African Americans are two-thirds of the population of this St. Louis suburb, but they account for nine out of 10 stops by police. The 53-member police force includes three African Americans.

That disparity has led to long-simmering tensions that flared when a police officer, still unidentified, fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was walking to his grandmother's home Saturday afternoon with a friend.

City officials issued a statement Wednesday expressing sympathy for the Brown family and asking people to confine their demonstrations to daylight hours to maintain calm.

But Wednesday night was not quiet. A demonstration by protesters raising their hands in surrender quickly became another disturbance. Police lobbed tear gas. They moved to close a McDonald's and briefly took into custody two reporters there.

Jackson has said the officer was assaulted by Brown and that the officer was pushed into his squad car, where a scuffle over his gun resulted in a gunshot. They emerged from the car and the officer fired several shots. Brown lay dead.

His friend, Dorian Johnson, tells a sharply different story.

Johnson, 22, told KSDK-TV that a white officer shot Brown "like an animal" in the head and chest as the teen put his hands in the air.

Johnson said the incident started around 1:40 p.m. Saturday when the officer pulled up beside the pair as they were walking down the street.

"He didn't say freeze, halt or anything like we were committing a crime," Johnson told KSDK. "He said, 'Get the 'F' on the sidewalk.'"

The officer then shoved open the car door, grabbed Brown around the neck and was pulling him through the window, Johnson said.

"The second time he says, 'I'll shoot.' A second later, the gun went off and he let go," Johnson said. "That's how we were able to run at the same time."

Johnson said he ducked behind a car as the officer continued shooting at them, hitting Brown in the back.

"His (Brown's) hands immediately went into the air and he turned around to the officer," Johnson recalled. "My friend started to tell the officer that he was unarmed and that he could stop shooting (him). Before he could get his second sentence out, the officer fired several more shots into his head and chest area."

He added: "It was definitely like being shot like an animal. ... I definitely think (the officer) is guilty of murder."

Anthony Gray, a lawyer for Michael Brown's family, said the teen's body was turned over to the family. He said the family was hiring someone to perform a second autopsy.

Jackson said his department is working with the Justice Department's community relations experts to address the community's racial strife. He said he hoped to arrange a meeting with Brown's relatives as early as Thursday.

Police refused again on Wednesday to identify the officer or his race, citing threats that have been made against the police force.

The National Bar Association, whose membership is predominantly African-American, filed a records request Wednesday demanding the name, gender, rank, race, age and seniority of the officer. The organization also asked for information about the past conduct of the officer and any information about his or her use or alleged use of force against any suspects while with the Ferguson Police Department.

"We believe for the sake of transparency and for the sake of bringing calmness to the community, it is imperative that they release the name," said the association's president, Pamela Meanes. "I think a lot of the frustration and a lot of the disruption is because people don't trust the process."

Meanes said if the officer's name isn't disclosed by Monday, her group would ask a county judge to order police to release it.

St. Louis city and county are among the most segregated areas in the country.

Priscilla Dowden-White, a history professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the anger, rioting and violence that have shaken Ferguson are a legacy of the racial segregation of the region.

"This is rooted in how the St. Louis community developed racially," she said. "This was a situation that was bound to occur."

St. Louis was at the epicenter of the fight against housing discrimination against blacks. In 1916, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited blacks from buying homes in or moving to predominantly white communities. The law was struck down in 1917.

But racially restricted covenants, which prohibited homeowners from selling a house to blacks, remained in effect until 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the legally binding agreements after hearing the case of a black home buyer in St. Louis.

Dowden-White said what followed was a migration of blacks to the northern suburbs of St. Louis County, including Ferguson. Still, real estate agents steered African Americans in certain directions.

"African Americans were relegated to certain communities," said Dowden-White.

That segregation, coupled with high unemployment, no wealth, low homeownership and few quality schools, resulted in communities steeped in poverty, she said.

"What we are seeing is the impact of poverty," she said. "And the legacy of poverty breeds a volatile situation. … We are seeing the response of people who are angry and cannot see a way out."

Ferguson, she said, is emblematic of low-income neighborhoods nationwide.

Terrell Marshall, 24, of Ferguson, said he has experienced what those numbers mean firsthand. In July, he said, he was walking home through Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown was shot, when police officers stopped him. The officers grabbed his luggage, emptied his belongings onto the ground and searched him, he said. He said he went along with the treatment he has seen others in his neighborhood endure.

"The police have been harassing people for a long time," he said. "The shooting shed some light on this, but there is still stuff out there."

Fazal reported from Ferguson, Mo. Contributing: Grant Bissell and Brandie Piper, KSDK-TV, St. Louis; and Paul Overberg in McLean, Va.


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