by St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
FERGUSON, Mo. — A candlelight vigil organized “for all who mourn” drew dozens of people Thursday night to a spot just yards from where two police officers were shot hours earlier.
Authorities called the shootings — which escalated tension in an already jittery city — an “ambush.”
But despite canvassing nearby neighborhoods for hours — at one point zeroing in on a single nearby residence — no arrests had been announced by late in the day.
The two officers shot were treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and released, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said.
One officer injured in the shooting was with Belmar’s department. The other is a Webster Groves police officer.
The Webster Groves officer was shot just below his right eye. Although the officer was released from the hospital Thursday, the bullet remained lodged just below his 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.
At Thursday night’s vigil, the Rev. Traci D. Blackmon, who organized the event, prayed for the police officers in a service that also featured a small choir.
But Blackmon also vowed to continue the protests that began with the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
“Over 200 days later and we’re still standing,” said Blackmon, of Christ the King United Church of Christ, who has been a fixture of the protests. “We cannot be moved and will not give up.”
Earlier in the day, Blackmon and more than two dozen other clergy members issued a statement speaking out against the shooting of police.
“We bear witness that last night’s shooters were not part of the protesting community. We condemn the actions they took to put first responders and peaceful protesters in harm’s way,” read the statement.
“Last night’s events do not bring us closer to the goals of our movement, which has been rooted in the principles of nonviolent direct action.”
Protests had been light Thursday evening, but crowds built to several dozen people following the vigil.
The Missouri Highway Patrol and St. Louis County police took over Ferguson protest security Thursday night. Ferguson police continued to handle routine policing in the city, St. Louis County police said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Early Thursday, just after midnight, authorities say at least three shots were fired at police following several hours of protests outside the Ferguson police station.
Many had expected a peaceful night, given the resignation earlier in the day by Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Many protesters had called for Jackson’s ouster.
Instead, as the shots were fired, the scene turned chaotic. Some protesters dropped to the ground. Others fled, as the gunfire was captured on video.
“Bullets were flying past us,” said Martez Little, 25, of north St. Louis County, who said he witnessed the shooting. “We heard them whistling by and saw two officers drop to their knees … The shots were coming off a hill, but we didn’t see nobody shooting.”
The two officers who were shot had been standing in a line of about 25 officers. 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 shootings were condemned Thursday by a wide range of public officials, including President Barack Obama.
“Violence against police is unacceptable,” Obama tweeted from the @WhiteHouse Twitter account. “Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together.”
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon also released a statement. “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,” the statement read in part.
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 whether 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.”
On Thursday morning, officers swarmed a home in Ferguson in their search for a gunman.
Tactical officers surrounded a brick bungalow on Dade Avenue near Tiffin Avenue. The home is about four blocks west of the police station.
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 that they were not under arrest. They declined to provide further details.
Belmar said he felt police had been fortunate since protests erupted in Ferguson in August after the shooting of 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.
CrimeStoppers is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the shooting.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) added a $3,000 reward for information.
“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.”
Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement 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.”
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) 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. Senator 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.”
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 of Ferguson government, namely the resignations of Police Chief Jackson and City Manager John Shaw, 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.
Belmar said that 60 to 70 protesters had come to the Ferguson Police Department in the hours before the shootings.
Some blocked 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.
Several members of the media, including a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer, were near the officers who were shot.
Reporters, photographers 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 South Florissant, northwest of the police station. Witnesses said the shots appeared to come from the direction of a block of homes on Tiffin Avenue that intersects South Florissant.
Bradley Rayford, a freelance journalist who has been reporting from Ferguson since the unrest began 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 whether 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.
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 recent resignations of Ferguson officials. They were chanting in unison.
The other group was volatile, angry, hurling profanities at the police, reporters 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.
Susan Weich, Christine Byers, Paul Hampel, Kim Bell, Margaret Gillerman, Valerie Schremp Hahn and Joel Currier, all of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.
Photo: Police mobilize in the parking lot of the Ferguson Police Station after two police officers were shot while standing guard in front of the Ferguson Police Station on Thursday, March 12, 2015 in Ferguson, Mo. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)