Federal officials intervened Friday to stop police in Ferguson, Mo., from wearing “I am Darren Wilson” bracelets in solidarity with the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old there last month.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson agreed to bar his officers from wearing the bracelets while in uniform and on duty, and to ensure that other local police agencies did too, according to a letter released Friday by Christy Lopez, deputy chief of the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
He did so after Justice Department officials brought the issue to his attention, alerted by residents during community meetings earlier in the week who complained they had seen officers wearing the bracelets on patrol during protests Tuesday, according to the letter.
"These bracelets reinforce the very 'us versus them' mentality that many residents of Ferguson believe exists," Lopez wrote.
Lopez also urged the chief to ensure that his officers wear their name tags in keeping with department policy. Critics had noted officers were patrolling without them or with their names covered by black tape, according to the letter.
“Allowing officers to remain anonymous when they interact with the public contributes to mistrust and undermines accountability,” Lopez had written to Jackson in a letter earlier this week, also released Friday. “The failure to wear name plates conveys a message to community members that, through anonymity, officers may seek to act with impunity.”
Ferguson police and the Justice Department have been investigating the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown. A grand jury is deliberating about whether to charge Wilson.
The civil rights division announced this month that it was expanding its inquiry into Brown’s death to include the entire Ferguson Police Department.
Lopez noted in her letter that photographs had circulated online purporting to show officers wearing the bracelets.
St. Louis County police were aware of the photos, but were unable to identify those wearing the bracelets or the departments they work for, said spokesman Brian Schellman.
Schellman said his agency had not received complaints from protesters.
“We have not been made aware that our officers were wearing these bracelets,” he said.
Jackson could not be reached for comment late Friday.
The chief has drawn repeated criticism from the community for his response to the shooting, particularly from black residents.
In the immediate aftermath, police clashed with protesters so often, hurling tear gas and smoke canisters, that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called in the State Highway Patrol to take over the response, with help from St. Louis County police. He later activated the National Guard.
After those outside agencies stood down and Jackson resumed control, controversies flared again this month.
On Tuesday, outraged protesters again clashed with police after a memorial at the scene of Brown's shooting was burned and photographs surfaced showing police watching in the background.
Two days later, Jackson released a video apologizing to the Brown family and peaceful protesters for how police handled the case, including the prolonged period of time Brown’s body was left in the the middle of Canfield Drive after he was killed.
"Please know that the investigating officers meant no disrespect to the Brown family, to the African American community or the people of Canfield. They were simply trying to do their jobs," Jackson said.
Brown family attorney Anthony Gray said late Friday that the family had not seen reports about the bracelets. They are traveling in Washington and had no immediate comment, he said.
"For me, the apology comes at a time when the trust and confidence in the chief has reached an all-time irreversible low," Gray said. "It is nearly impossible to measure any reach of his apology at this time. Most observers, I believe, are locked into their opinions about the handling of the shooting of this unarmed teen. Dynamite, much less an apology, will do little, in my opinion, to move anyone off their opinions at this point. Despite this, we remain prayerful that peace, calm and justice will prevail."
Times staff writer Timothy M. Phelps contributed to this report.
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