The National Guard will be ready to assist law enforcement in Missouri if unrest erupts after a grand jury announces whether to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday.
“Violence will not be tolerated,” Nixon said at a news conference with officials from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County police and St. Louis Metropolitan police. The governor said the agencies would form a unified command to deal with protests. “Residents and businesses of this region will be protected,” Nixon said.
The St. Louis area remains on edge as it awaits the grand jury decision on whether Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson should face charges in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, 18. A decision is expected in the coming weeks. Wilson, who is white, shot the young black man six times in a confrontation on a street in Ferguson, according to a preliminary private autopsy.
More than 1,000 area police officers have received a total of more than 5,000 hours of training to deal with potential unrest, officials said Tuesday.
Nixon said that the rights of peaceful protesters would be respected but that officials would have no tolerance for violent agitation. “Our dual pillars here are safety and speech,” Nixon said in the televised news conference from St. Louis. The National Guard, he said, would be available “when we determine it is necessary to support local law enforcement.”
Nixon added: “The world is watching.”
St. Louis County police, along with the Missouri Highway Patrol and St. Louis Metropolitan police, have been holding daily “tactical meetings” since October in anticipation of the decision, St. Louis County Police Sgt. Brian Schellman told the Los Angeles Times.
“The community is on edge. … There is a large sense of anxiety out there. This is a little unprecedented,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters in a televised news conference. Belmar added: “If you talk to chiefs around the country [as I have], they’re concerned and prepared for this to perhaps lap into their communities also.”
Belmar’s agency handled a significant amount of the crowd control efforts in August. The police’s “militarized” gear and tactics and stern treatment of demonstrators and reporters were criticized.
Belmar defended the agency's response by saying that such gear was necessary for his officers’ protection and pointed out that no protesters lost their lives during August’s demonstrations, which were occasionally marred by looting and gunshots. “My goodness, could we be that fortunate moving forward?” Belmar said of the absence of fatalities.
The St. Louis County Police Department has spent about $120,000 to replenish equipment such as shields, batons, tear gas and flex handcuffs after weeks of unrest in the aftermath of the shooting depleted supplies and damaged equipment. (Phone calls and emails to the Highway Patrol and metropolitan police about any additional riot gear purchases were not immediately returned Tuesday.)
“Obviously we don't want to use this equipment,” Schellman said. “But we have an obligation to preserve life and property.... As police, it's our job to prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.”
Community members are also preparing for protests that could turn violent by holding forums so people are aware of their rights and can get legal training. Hundreds of people in Ferguson were arrested during the August protests.
“We want activists to understand their boundaries of legal protests and know the risks associated with civil disobedience,” said Andy Stepanian, a spokesman with HandsUpUnited.org, a group that formed after Brown's death. Stepanian said the group, in conjunction with the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union, has held about two dozen training sessions in the last month.
Several leaks surrounding the grand jury investigation have emerged in recent weeks, including some that indicate several witnesses offered testimony that supports Wilson's account that he was defending himself from Brown. The U.S. Department of Justice condemned the disclosures as “irresponsible and highly troubling.” Moreover, the Justice Department is conducting its own civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
If the grand jury does not indict Wilson, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has vowed to release full transcripts and audio recordings of the proceedings.