The interim police chief in Ferguson, Mo., is drawing criticism for a recent interview in which he said that it took hours to remove 18-year-old Michael Brown’s body from the street after he was shot by a police officer “because of hostile fire against our officers.”
The statement has proved controversial because there has been so much debate over how the shooting happened and why Brown’s lifeless body lay in the street about 4 1/2 hours after he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Sunday, Interim Police Chief Alan “Al” Eickhoff appeared to suggest that police were under fire and couldn’t approach the body -- an explanation that critics say is a mischaracterization.
“The only people who had guns were the police and they pulled their guns immediately. They had guns in people's faces,” said David Whitt, a resident of the neighborhood who arrived at the scene about an hour after Brown was shot.
“How is the new police chief going to come in and speak about something when he wasn’t even in charge at the time?” said Whitt, 35, a father of three who has organized residents in Ferguson to use body cameras to monitor police.
In the interview, Eickhoff noted that protests were sparked not just by the circumstances of Brown’s shooting -- allegations that he had his hands up -- but also by the delay in removing Brown’s body.
“The reason he was there for so long was because of hostile fire against our officers. We could not get to Michael Brown’s body,” Eickhoff said.
The reality, as has been the case with most aspects of the highly controversial shooting, is complicated.
Gunfire was indeed reported by police at the time, and both the U.S. Justice Department and a local grand jury also received reports of shots fired in the vicinity after the shooting. But some Ferguson residents question those reports, and whether the atmosphere at the scene affected the investigation.
Shortly before the shooting, Brown was caught on video taking cigarillos from a convenience store and Wilson responded to the robbery call. About noon, the officer spotted Brown and a friend walking in the street and stopped his police car. An altercation ensued. The two struggled through the car window until Wilson's gun was fired. Brown fled and Wilson pursued him on foot, firing at him several times.
Some witnesses initially said that Brown, who was unarmed, had his hands up in surrender and said “Don’t shoot” when he was shot, but the Justice Department report could not confirm that.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who arrived at the scene about three hours after the shooting, said he “didn't hear any gunfire.”
In any case, he said, it would be wrong to imply “that somehow police had retreated or abandoned the scene or not felt comfortable being at the scene, when in fact, from minutes after the shooting, police were on the scene and in control of the scene for hours.”
“What people couldn't understand was how you could have the SWAT vehicle, but not the coroner,” French said. “... There was just a complete lack of compassion or empathy from government.”
Chief Eickhoff did not provide further comment this week.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said at least part of the delay was prompted by an effort to preserve evidence in an officer-involved shooting that was sure to draw scrutiny.
“We could have immediately come in after the shooting and removed him without taking pictures and evidence. But that would have destroyed the opportunity for a thorough investigation, and people would have screamed that there was a cover-up,” he said.
Moreover, he added, “by the time they actually got an opportunity to remove him, the scene had become unsecure ... because shots were being fired.”
St. Louis County police have acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the time it took to shield and remove Brown's body. But they have also defended their work, saying that the time it took detectives to reach the scene was not unusual, and that conditions made it difficult to do what was needed.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has said he did not recall when he received the initial call about the Brown shooting from his counterpart in Ferguson, but that after he hung up, he immediately called his chief of detectives, according to a police spokesman, Sgt. Brian Schellman.
By 12:50 p.m., police logs show, St. Louis County detectives were on their way; the first to arrive checked in at 1:30 p.m. and logs show the rest checked in about an hour later, Schellman said.
A St. Louis County detective who arrived shortly after 1 p.m. later told the grand jury that gunfire sounded near a large crowd that had formed and officers “held” the scene, temporarily halting their investigation until it could be secured.
According to the Justice Department report released in March, “crime scene detectives had to stop processing the scene as a result of two more reports of what sounded like automatic weapons gunfire in the area at 1:55 p.m. and 2:11 p.m., as well as some individuals in the crowd encroaching on the crime scene and chanting, ‘Kill the police,’ as documented by cellphone video.”
Calvin Whitaker, who contracts with St. Louis County to transport bodies to the morgue, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he heard gunshots when he arrived at about 2:30 p.m. and that a police officer told him and his wife to stay in the car because they did not have bulletproof vests.
Whitaker said officers allowed him to remove Brown's body at about 4 p.m., and workers at the morgue signed the body in at 4:37 p.m.
The disputed circumstances of Brown’s shooting and the resulting protests sparked a national debate about police profiling and use of force.
The interim chief's recent comments also raised questions for Tony Rice, one of the leaders of Ground Level Support, a local activist group formed in the wake of Brown’s shooting.
“There’s just too much video evidence and pictures that do not show a hostile crowd, a hostile situation,” said Rice, who arrived at the shooting scene later that night, but saw images online.
Rice said he has talked to Eickhoff numerous times.
“He does understand the level that police need to get involved in the community. He interacts with the protesters. We talk. Last City Council meeting, we must have sat outside and talked for an hour,” Rice said.
But after reading Eickhoff’s “hostile fire” comment, Rice said he is disillusioned.
“I don’t think they learned anything” from Brown's shooting, he said of the police. “I don't think this regime can be worked with. They all need to be jettisoned.”
Follow @mollyhf on Twitter for national news.