Updated 10 a.m. Friday with lifting of state of emergency. On a cloudless Tuesday night on West Florissant Avenue, the mood was relatively calm. A few dozen protesters, onlookers and media milled about on a parking lot – a far cry from chaos that struck the thoroughfare on Sunday night.
At some point though, a group of people moved into the middle of street. They blocked traffic. They started chanting. And they were met with a line of police officers clad in riot gear trying to get them to move back to the sidewalk. One of the people in the middle of scrum was St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who was personally trying to get people out of the street. After a few tense moments, things calmed down considerably – and the rest of the night beat on without incident.
This was but one scene in Ferguson during St. Louis County’s state of emergency, which took effect on Monday afternoon through the order of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. After a tense Monday night, the site of the protests was much calmer on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Stenger lifted the state of emergency on Friday morning.
“After reviewing the events of the past four evenings, under the state of emergency, I am pleased to report our law enforcement officers have established order while preventing further acts of violence in Ferguson," Stenger said in a statement. "I want to emphasize local law enforcement will remain vigilant, and officers are prepared to respond swiftly if necessary."
Stenger contends the swift action helped stabilize a volatile situation after an officer-involved shooting on Sunday, primarily because it placed Belmar and the larger St. Louis County Police Department in charge of the security situation.
“We have all banded together to rebuild Ferguson. And we have made great strides,” Stenger said earlier this week. “And to think that all that could be lost in a night of violence, looting, burning – that is a real problem for our community. And it’s not something that our community can take right now.”
But others are less sanguine about Stenger’s state of emergency order, contending it stoked more fear and worry than what was necessary. Some have decried what they saw as overly aggressive tactics on Monday night, when nearly two-dozen people were arrested in Ferguson.
“I think they were looking for the first opportunity that they could to call a state of emergency, really,” said Mary Chandler, who has been at night protests since Michael Brown was shot and killed last year. “Because it’s like this big surprise all of a sudden there’s a state of emergency. But they didn’t tell you that there have been protests going on for a week straight. They don’t tell you that the only time an issue ever arrives is when police come in their riot gear. “
Out of precedent
For those that followed the St. Louis County executive’s contest, Stenger’s decision to call a state of emergency isn’t that surprising.
That’s because Stenger stated last year that then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley should have issued such an order after rioting occurred after Brown’s death. For a little context, a state of emergency gives a county executive the power to “enforce all rules and regulations relating to emergency management.” It can be done in the event of “actual enemy attack upon the United States or of the occurrence of disaster from fire, flood, earthquake, or other natural causes involving imminent peril to lives and property in St. Louis County.” (At the time, there was disagreement if the Ferguson unrest fit that definition.)
One of the reasons calling a state of emergency in this instance was significant is it effectively gave Stenger the power to provide orders to the St. Louis County Police Department. In non-emergency circumstances, the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners – not the county executive’s office – has control and oversight over the county police. After he issued the state of emergence order, Stenger placed St. Louis County Police in charge of securing protests in and around Ferguson.
Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said county state of emergency declarations are “rarely used,” adding that Monday’s announcement was “the first time I’ve ever actually seen the county executive do that.” He said whenever there’s a natural disaster in St. Louis County, the governor calls a state of emergency – and renders a county one moot. (That’s effectively why Dooley didn’t call a state of emergency last year.)
As part of his police consulting business, Fitch had been at the police command post since last Friday watching the situation in Ferguson. He said Ferguson police were far too indecisive in dealing with the situation on Sunday which necessitated a change in strategy.
“For example, he had warning given to the crowd to clear the street or they would be arrested,” Fitch said. “He was up to warning number 18 when the big shooting occurred, with the multiple dozens of shots that were fired. And then, [it] eventually culminated in the officer-involved shooting.
“So something needed to change, and I thought it was a good move on the county executive’s part to remove the Ferguson Police chief from command,” he added.
Stenger, however, was more diplomatic.
“We had a very bad evening on Sunday, and that was what the impetus was for declaring the state of emergency. And on Sunday evening, the chief of Ferguson had situational control,” Stenger said. “And it’s not a denigration of him, and it’s not a criticism of him. We have a massive difference in scale of departments. The St. Louis County Police are about a thousand officers strong. The Ferguson department has 50. Chief Belmar has vast experience in dealing with these types of situations. And I felt he was the appropriate person to have in command.”
(For their part, Ferguson’s mayor and city council issued a statement on Monday pledging to work with the county police during the state of emergency. It also went on to say that “our officers have exemplified respect, community engagement and professionalism under extremely difficult circumstances.”)
Stenger said the fact that Monday featured no gunfire, robberies or major property damage showed the state of emergency was working. He credited Belmar and his top staff for repeatedly going into the crowd and trying to de-escalate tense situations.
“I just think it was the efforts of de-escalation and also I think having a structured environment really, really worked well,” he said.
Fanning the flames?
Some Stenger critics, though, were less enthusiastic about the decision to call a state of emergency.
For instance, St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said the decision shaped a national narrative that the situation in St. Louis County was out of control – and in effect created more attention and fear than was necessary.
“I just think that it escalated the entire situation. And it makes us look bad,” said Erby, who has clashed with Stenger in the past. “The national media and everybody is saying a ‘state of emergency.’ What state of emergency? I feel bad for the people in Ferguson who have to keep going through this, because now that’s bringing more media attention. And it sounds like something terrible is going on here. I’m getting calls from my family saying, ‘I want you out there – out of St. Louis.’ And we’re not feeling that.”
Others were disenchanted with some of the tactics used by police. Ladue resident Susan Clark said on Tuesday that she had waited outside the St. Louis County Justice Center for people to be released from custody and she "did not see a single person come out of that jail last night – and I sat there for 12 and half hours – that didn’t have cuts, bruises, abrasions, something."
And protesters like Mary Chandler noticed a big difference between how police treated protesters compared to others – such as the controversial Oath Keepers.
“It goes to show you that there is definitely a double standard that these police have here. Because they felt completely comfortable with [the Oath Keepers],” Chandler said. “They didn’t challenge them in any way. But yet, if there would have been African Americans walking around? I mean, hell. We can’t even stand on this side of the street without the weapons being pointed at us.”
Stenger, however, emphasized that he thought the Oath Keepers were inflaming an already tense situation. He also stressed that “no one is being arrested along racial lines.”
“I think they’re being arrested if they’re being arrested for conduct and for violations of the law,” said Stenger, adding that Missouri’s laws governing “open carry” of firearms made it difficult to manage the Oath Keepers. (Click here to listen to a NPR story on the topic.)
For his part, Fitch said Stenger made the right call. He added: “I think without the action that the county executive took, we could have had a repeat of [Sunday].”
We have to make it very clear. There is a line,” Fitch said. “And if you cross the line, you’ll be arrested. And you’ll be charged and you’ll be incarcerated. If we just say anything goes, people – especially the criminals – will keep pushing, pushing, pushing until they find out where the line is.”
But Derrell Wilkes wonders if the police’s posture is actually exacerbating the divide between police and African Americans. On Tuesday in Ferguson, he watched the police in SWAT gear direct the crowd back to the sidewalk. The Hazelwood resident lamented how the police were “just coming straight out in riot gear like basically going to war.”
“To me, I don’t think they even listen or even care,” said Wilkes, who watched the protest with young son Khalliel. “You probably get a chief or a captain to come speak. But you’re not speaking for everybody, man. Everybody’s got their own personal opinion – just like everybody out here protesting. Everybody's got their own different reason for what they’re protesting for and what they’ve been through. Man, they’re not hearing nobody man.”
Earlier this week before the officer-involved shooting occurred, Belmar stressed that his department and other members of law enforcement have taken Brown’s shooting death to heart. And, he said, that’s influenced his department’s approach.
“I think we owe it to ourselves together to make sure that we grow out this. That positive things happen,” said Belmar, adding that Brown’s death lead to more police training and an overhaul of the municipal court system.” That we begin to learn from it and eliminate the negatives. Eliminate the environment that really caused the emotion and cynicism from last August. Because frankly, I can understand a lot of that. Not all of it. But a lot of it. I really do.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.