As St. Louis residents nervously await a decision regarding Michael Brown’s shooting death, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley had a simple piece of advice.
“Take a deep breath, stand back and calm down,” Dooley said.
Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told reporters on Wednesday that law enforcement agencies are prepared to protect lives and property – and the rights of protesters – if Wilson isn’t charged with Michael Brown’s shooting death.
But the two emphasized that people shouldn’t automatically assume that widespread violence will break out after the grand jury decision. Dooley said “the images and the reports that our region is preparing for war are unfortunate.”
“What you don’t see are the money images of people from all walks of life working together to ensure peaceful protests and work on long-term solutions,” Dooley said. “Those make up the majority of the St. Louis region. Rumors on social media, leaks from the grand jury and relentless media attention are inflaming tensions and creating hysteria. And we all need to be more responsible in what we do and how we communicate.”
Slay told reporters that the pair's appearance at the St. Louis County Administration Building was a response of sorts to Gov. Jay Nixon’s Tuesday press conference. He said “neither of us know what’s going to happen with the grand jury or what will happen thereafter.” But, he added, “both the city government and county government are working together very closely to prepare for whatever is to come when that does happen.”
“We are going to keep people and their homes safe, always. And that’s our number one main effort that we’re undertaking,” Slay said. “We are going to protect the constitutional rights of the peaceful protesters. We are going to move our region forward, regardless of what happens.”
Slay went onto say that St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department chief Sam Dotson will speak with reporters on Thursday. He said he’s told Dotson that protesters should have leeway to “occupy public spaces if that is their choice.”
“But I’ve also told him that it is his first job to keep all of our citizens safe and to prevent violence and looting,” Slay said. “Violence is not a constitutionally-protected right. Damaging property is not constitutionally protected. Inciting violence that is an immediate threat is not protected by the Constitution.”
Both Slay and Dooley said they didn’t know whether there would be advanced notice of when the grand jury decision would come out. And Dooley said he hasn’t talked with St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger about preparing for the decision.
And when Dooley was asked whether he would call for a county state of emergency after the decision – which Stenger said earlier this year should have occurred after Michael Brown’s death -- he responded:
“Let me say this – you’re assuming that something’s going to go wrong. I’m assuming that things will go right,” Dooley said. “This is a great place to live. People are very civilized. They’re going to do the right thing for the right reason. The majority of our constituency are good people. They want law and order. Why would I think anything different?”
“That’s the whole point of this press conference,” he added. “Let’s calm down. Let’s start thinking realistically.”
Holder talks to Missouri officials
Both Dooley and Slay were part of a conference call with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked with a group of Missouri officials on Wednesday afternoon.
According to a readout of the conference call that was released by the Justice Department, Holder was "encouraged by reports he has received about progress being made in those planning efforts, including dialogue with coalition leaders about constructive engagement in the weeks ahead."
"The Attorney General stressed that going forward, it will be more important than ever that the law enforcement response to the demonstrations always seek to deescalate tensions and respect the rights of protestors," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon. "At the same time, the Attorney General said, it must be clearly communicated that any acts of violence by the demonstrators, or other attempts to provoke law enforcement, are unacceptable."
Fallon's statement also said that Holder didn't give the officials a timeline when federal investigations into Brown's death would conclude. He added that Holder stressed "that he had devoted significant resources to these investigations in order to ensure they are conducted in as thorough and expeditious a manner as possible.
“The Attorney General concluded by offering the Department’s continued assistance, and by urging continued and direct communication between elected officials, law enforcement, and community leaders in the days ahead to help deescalate tensions and assist with planning,” Fallon said.
Holder visited the St. Louis region during the height of protests over Brown's death. He has since announced plans to leave the attorney general's office.