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Officials Battle Over Who's In Charge In Ferguson And Probe

Bill Greenblatt | UPI

Although the Missouri Highway Patrol is overseeing the police presence in Ferguson, it quickly has become apparent that neither the patrol nor Gov. Jay Nixon is in control of all law-enforcement actions.

That lack of control already is leading to unwanted surprises that revolve around a central question:  Who is in charge?

That question also applies to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who are battling over who should control a local probe into the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown. 

Dooley -- at odds with McCulloch -- has asked Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to step in or name a special prosecutor.  Koster says he legally cannot.

Saturday's chaotic news conference in Ferguson played into the who's-in-charge quandary, as members of the audience shouted down Nixon as they reaffirmed their fears that justice might not be served -- despite the assurances of the governor and other elected officials.

Another vivid example took place Friday morning. That’s when Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who now is overseeing police operations in Ferguson, first became aware of video and photos allegedly implicating Brown in a robbery shortly before he was shot.

Johnson says he was stunned when he watched the morning TV news and learned of the video and photos. Johnson hadn’t been alerted beforehand that the video existed or that Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson had decided to give copies to news outlets.

Johnson made clear to reporters that he wasn’t happy about it. “Today, I will meet with the police chief of Ferguson and talk about how that was released,’’ Johnson said tersely during a Friday morning news conference with Nixon.

Johnson later added with an edge in his voice, “It’s not going to be a conversation conducted over the phone.”

A few hours later, the Ferguson police chief held his own news conference and apologized for what he called a “communication breakdown.’’  

Referring to Johnson, the chief added, “I should have called him.”

County police question softer tactics

The incident had broader significance that Johnson recognized could affect his standing with protesters and Ferguson residents who are paying close attention to who's in charge. At Friday’s news conference, for example, a man who identified himself as one of the protesters asked Johnson if he was “just a figurehead’’ since he had been out of the loop on the release of the video and photos allegedly of Brown.

Nixon, who has jurisdiction over the Highway Patrol, also acknowledged that he had been unaware that the video and photos had existed or had been released. That also prompted moans and derisive comments at the news conference from the local residents watching the proceedings.

The Ferguson police chief wasn't the only one who seemed to be blind-siding Johnson and Nixon.

Protesters are greeted by a wall of police officers after a march to the Ferguson Police department on August 11, 2014.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI / UPI
Protesters are greeted by a wall of police officers after a march to the Ferguson Police department on Aug. 11.

The St. Louis County Police Officers Association issued a statement on Friday objecting to the change in command. The association said that "Nixon's decision was motivated by local and national political pressure. His decision not only did not improve public safety but put officers lives in danger."

The association also said its officers had been ordered by the patrol "not to deploy with personal protective equipment such as helmets and shields. Subsequently, last night, an officer was assaulted when a thrown brick struck his person."

Although Johnson said there were no arrests, the police group complained that under the patrol's command Thursday night, "several patrol vehicles were damaged by thrown debris, a news photographer was assaulted, a McDonalds was nearly burglarized, and a person showed up at Christian Northeast Hospital after being shot in the protest area."

Koster says McCulloch can't be removed from probe

More may be at stake in the effort of Dooley and some of his allies to remove McCulloch as head of the investigation into the shooting.

Dooley and McCulloch have been at odds for some time, with McCulloch actively campaigning for Dooley’s rival in the Aug. 5 primary, County Councilman Steve Stenger.  Stenger went on to handily defeat Dooley and has given McCulloch some of the credit.

Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch talks with reporters about the 32 people arrested for looting during a riot in Ferguson.

Now, McCulloch is under fire from Dooley and others who question his objectivity when it comes to the Brown investigation. The stakes were raised Thursday when McCulloch publicly rebuked Nixon for his decision to put the Highway Patrol in charge, thus ousting county Police Chief Jon Belmar as the commanding officer in Ferguson.

McCulloch even asserted that the governor "had no authority" to make the change.

Nixon declined comment on Friday.  A spokesman for McCulloch said only, "We're going to do our duty."   Meanwhile, Johnson played down any dispute, telling reporters that he and Belmar have worked well together.

Johnson noted that he and other Highway Patrol officers had been in Ferguson for several days before the change in command occurred, and had become well acquainted with many county officers.

Meanwhile, Koster confirmed that Dooley has asked him to replace McCulloch as head of the local investigation.  But Koster says only a judge could do so.

“Prosecutors in our state derive their power directly from the people,” Koster explained, noting that McCulloch holds an elected position. “State law provides no authority for the attorney general or the governor to remove or transfer a criminal case from an elected county prosecutor.”

A judge can name a special prosecutor if the county prosecutor has a conflict of interest, Koster said.

Or, McCulloch could ask assistance from Koster’s office, but that request would need to first be made to the governor. As it stands, McCulloch hasn’t indicated any plans to talk to Nixon.

Nixon did say Friday, however, that he supported the current setup with McCulloch and the county police conducting their own investigation. That's in addition to the federal probe that Nixon and others also support.

In response to Koster's explanation, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, called Friday for McCulloch to "recuse himself'' and voluntarily step down from overseeing the probe.  Among other things, she cited McCulloch's involvement in Stenger's campaign against Dooley.

Other McCulloch's critics have yet to say what their next move will be.

Clay weighs in

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, has said he doesn't trust the county police but hasn't said anything specifically about McCulloch. That could change, since Clay has made clear that he wants an expanded federal role in the investigation into Brown's death.

By Friday night,  Clay was back in Ferguson. He's expected to renew his complaints about the county police. Clay is strongly in favor of the Highway Patrol's heightened role.

A Clay spokesman noted that the congressman also wants "a completely independent criminal prosecution'' that doesn't involve county officials.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, also was in Ferguson by Friday evening.  He asserted to reporters that the police missteps had caused more trouble than the protesters.  He also raised questions as to who was in charge.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.