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Ferguson Mayor Couldn't Reach Nixon Or Get Needed Help After Grand Jury Announcement

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles testifies in front of the joint Senate and House committee on Government Accountability on Wednesday.
Marshall Griffin
St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles says his city needed help from the Missouri National Guard but didn’t get it -- and he doesn’t know why.

During more than two hours of testimony Wednesday, a legislative joint committee heard testimony on the state’s response to the grand jury announcement following the shooting death of Michael Brown by former Officer Darren Wilson.

Knowles said he tried to contact Gov. Jay Nixon to deploy the guard on Nov. 24. Instead, he had to turn to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Attorney General Chris Koster and Treasurer Clint Zweifel to try to get a hold of the governor’s office.

Knowles also testified that he learned in early November the governor was not planning to deploy the National Guard ahead of the grand jury announcement. But as night rolled around on Nov. 24, it was clear the law enforcement and firefighters would need more help. It wasn’t until about 2 a.m. when Knowles said he learned a greater National Guard presence would come.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, leads the joint committee. He said Wednesday that he wants to know  why the plans changed so quickly.

“We heard there were months of planning,” Schaefer said. “The question is: Why did the plans change shortly before they actually needed to be engaged and they changed to the detriment, particularly of Ferguson where there was no protection of life or property.”

Knowles said he understood National Guard troops would be stationed at "static" locations such as the county courthouse and Ferguson Police Department. Law enforcement would then be free to protect the neighborhoods. But that changed ahead of the announcement.

Pattonville Assistant Fire Chief Matt LaVanchy, Eureka Fire Chief Greg Brown and Calverton Park Mayor Jim Paunovich also testified during Wednesday’s hearing.

The committee tried to determine the chain of command during the unrest. At one time, Knowles called the unified command a “triumvirate” that was “confusing” at times. The Missouri Highway Patrol, St. Louis County police and the National Guard were all in control of Ferguson at some point.

The firefighters, like some law enforcement, said they weren’t allowed to go into some area of Ferguson on Nov. 24 because of orders from that same command. They didn't know why that decision was made.

“We wanted to help that community,” LaVanchy said. “That’s our job to save people’s lives and we weren’t allowed.”

LaVanchy said he wished his people had been able to fight the fires earlier in the night, but they couldn’t because some firefighters were getting shot at. 

“We had the resources, but it was too late,” LaVanchy said of when they finally had support. “At that point we couldn’t save the buildings that had been burning, that we were watching for hours on TV prior to that. We went out and put out the fires, but there was not a whole lot of saving going on.”

Earlier in the day, Nixon announced the retirement of Missouri Highway Patrol Superintendent Ron Replogle who was in command during Ferguson. He said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with Wednesday’s hearing. Nixon also defended the state’s response to the unrest, saying it was “unfortunate” to have lost some buildings and businesses in Fergsuon, but “it’s a lot better than the discussion after Kent State,” referring to when the National Guard shot dead four students in 13 seconds on the school’s campus in 1970.

Schaefer said that doesn’t cut it, though. And said it was “sheer luck” no one was killed the night after the grand jury announcement.

“It’s awfully easy for the governor to say, ‘Well we’re fortunate nobody got killed,’” Schaeffer said. “Was that the plan? I don’t think that was the plan. Sounds like to me what the plan was that the firefighters were supposed to have protection and on the night they needed it, when they actually were out responding to fires, they were told, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do that for you.’

“I don’t think that’s acceptable.” 

Follow Ray Howze on Twitter:  @rayhowze

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