FERGUSON, Mo. — Gunfire erupted and a man was shot by police in Ferguson late Sunday night during protests marking the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer here one year ago.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the man was shot after opening fire on an unmarked police SUV shortly before midnight, following a day of peaceful protests and remembrances that gave way to tense standoffs between law enforcement and residents.
Belmar said plainclothes officers had been monitoring the man in a crowd of protesters prior to the shooting. At an overnight news conference, Belmar did not offer many specifics, but said the man, armed with a stolen 9mm Sig Sauer, was involved in an exchange of gunfire with another party, then fired on four plainclothes officers in the SUV.
The officers fired back, hitting the man, who was said to be in critical, “unstable” condition. The officers were not injured despite coming under what authorities described as “heavy gunfire.”
“I can tell you that it was a remarkable amount of gunfire,” Belmar said, estimating that 40 or 50 shots were fired in 45 seconds. He did not identify the officers, the man they shot, or the races of those involved, but said the man who was shot was about 20 years old.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Tyrone Harris Sr. identified the victim as his 18-year-old son, Tyrone Harris Jr., of St. Louis. Harris said his son had come out of surgery and noted that the teen and Michael Brown “were real close,” having both attended Normandy High School.
“We think there’s a lot more to this than what’s being said,” Harris Sr. told the newspaper.
Belmar said that the four plainclothes detectives — a group “more fluid and agile” in responding to threats — were offering support to the uniformed officers monitoring protesters. He said the detectives had six to 12 years of experience, and that the officers weren’t wearing body cameras.
Belmar also stressed that the man who opened fire was not a protester and tried to differentiate between those exercising their First Amendment rights at Ferguson protests and those involved in criminal activity.
“There is a small group of people out there who are intent on making sure we don’t have peace that prevails,” Belmar said. “That’s unfortunate. Because even with the folks who were in the street last night, there were a lot of emotions, I get it. But this is something different.”
He added: “We can’t talk about the good things that we have been talking about in the last year . . . if we’re prevented from moving forward by this type of violence.” Belmar characterized the shooting as “avoidable.”
In addition to the officer-involved shooting, police also said that two young men — 17 and 19 years old — were shot around 2 a.m. near the Canfield Green apartment complex, where Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson last August.
The two men told police they were walking on the sidewalk when a man wearing a red hooded sweatshirt started shooting at them from the rear passenger side of a vehicle. The 17-year-old victim was shot once in the chest/shoulder region and the 19-year-old was shot once in the chest, police said. Both victims were transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
The officer-involved shooting occurred on West Florissant Avenue, which served as ground zero during the long stretch of turbulence that followed Brown’s death here.
According to the Post-Disptach, protesters had blocked West Florissant north of Ferguson Avenue as police detectives tracked the victim “along with several of his acquaintances.”
Then, the shooting began.
“In a chaotic scene,” the Post-Dispatch reported, “police officers, reporters and protesters ran for cover. People sprinted across the street and dived behind parked cars.
The sound of the gunfire was caught on film by CNN, which later aired video of an interview with the city’s new interim police chief Andre Anderson. Shots were heard on the street during the interview, and Anderson appeared startled.
Reuters reported that there was a body on West Florissant — and that “a young woman screamed that her brother had been shot.”
Graphic video shot by prominent Ferguson protester Tony Rice — known for his tweets from the streets — appeared to show a handcuffed and injured man lying on the ground as an officer watched.
“It seemed like the protest was winding down,” Rice told The Washington Post of the moments before the violence. “And next thing you know, gunshots rang out.”
Rice said, “By the time the gunshots died down, I stood up and looked, there’s another lady out there yelling that someone had been shot. As I approached, sure enough, there’s a body on the ground.”
In the video, Rice sounded desperate. He yelled to officers, inquiring as to why the man was not being given medical attention.
“Hey, he bleeding!” Rice said in the video. “Get him some help, man. Please get him some help! . . . He’s bleeding out, man, you see it. He’s breathing, man. Please get him some help!” He added later: “I just did not see a level of urgency. . . . And it was quite a while before the initial officers went over and did a pulse check.”
As they attempted to secure a still-chaotic scene, officers detained Rice, handcuffing him and sitting him down not far from the shooting before releasing him. “This is a crime scene,” an officer said. “Back up . . . You are under arrest!”
Rice said he did see three officers eventually attempt to provide some form of medical aid to the man who was shot.
The tension in the streets that preceded the shootout came after a day of peaceful demonstration, during which hundreds had gathered for vigils and silent marches in honor of Michael Brown, whose death sparked a national movement focused on police interactions with African Americans.
Tensions ratcheted up around 8 p.m. local time. With most of those who came to Ferguson to demonstrate gathered at a rap concert and a panel discussion, groups of young men broke into storefronts along West Florissant — the same street where thousands of protesters convened last summer, and where stores were looted and burned on several nights.
Those break-ins Sunday prompted police to cut off traffic to the area and deploy officers in riot gear — a visible police presence that prompted angry locals and some protesters to gather opposite the line of officers.
At the same time, groups of young men who police believed may have been armed gathered on the sidewalks near local businesses. Eventually, two of the groups engaged in a gun fight ahead of the officer-involved shooting.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French — a well-known face on the streets of Ferguson since Brown’s death — said that, when night fell, things got chaotic. Reached by telephone, French said that prior to the shooting, he saw signs of looting and violence, including a newspaper reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who had been beaten and robbed, and a broken window at a local business.
French said he was trying to prevent further theft at the business when he heard “three or four” shots ring out.
“I didn’t move because it didn’t seem they were that close,” he said. “The next thing you know, there were . . . gunshots everywhere.”
French said he took cover behind a car, then emerged to hear reports that a person had been shot by police. French also said there was “some confusion” over whether there were one or two shootings, and over whether the officer involved in the shooting was in uniform.
On Twitter, French later reported that tear gas had been used on the crowd. At the overnight press conference, Belmar said he had heard smoke had been deployed, but said he had not been at the scene of the protest since “about midnight.” CNN, among other outlets, later reported tear gas was used as well.
Around 6 a.m., in a press release, the St. Louis County Police reported that two police officers were pepper-sprayed by protesters; one officer sustained a laceration to the face after being hit by a rock; and five people were arrested.
Moyer and du Lac reported from Washington. Nick Kirkpatrick contributed.