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Two Officers Shot At In North County, Feeding Ferguson Tensions Though No Protest Connection Found

Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated at 2 p.m. Sunday September 28, 2014 with further details from St. Louis County Police.)

Overnight, two area police officers were shot at — a Ferguson officer wounded in an encounter near the Ferguson Community Center, and a St. Louis officer injured by flying glass when his car was hit by gunfire on Interstate 70 near Interstate 170.

Police said there was no reason to believe the shootings were connected to ongoing protests, but the incidents fueled a tense and confusing night as police searched for suspects, protesters gathered and rumors spread in person, through news reports and on social media. After the I-70 shooting, police shut down the highway, tying up traffic from more than an hour.

In Ferguson, some reporters and others initially spread information that turned out to be incorrect, including speculation that the incident was related to the protests and that a suspect had been killed. Protesters and police faced off near the intersection of West Florissant Avenue and Stein, where police had closed the area and a search was underway for the suspect.

Later, tensions eased somewhat after St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar said he didn’t believe the shooting Saturday night was connected to the shooting of Michael Brown or subsequent protests. “I wouldn’t have any reason to think it was linked in any shape, manner or form, to the protest. It certainly doesn’t appear that way," Belmar said.

The officer was shot in the left arm outside the Ferguson Community Center on Smith Avenue shortly after 9 p.m.  According to police, the officer had stopped to investigate someone at the rear of the building, who ran after being approached. Police say the man turned and fired at the officer, hitting him with one round.

Around midnight Belmar said the police officer was able to “get a couple shots off,” but stressed he was unsure exactly what that meant. A later press release confirmed that the officer returned fire. Police searched the area for a suspect but were unable to find the gunman.

Body Camera Inactive

On Sunday afternoon, St. Louis County Police Officer Brian Schellman said that the Ferguson officer's body camera was turned off at the time of the shooting. When asked why it was turned off when the man was on duty, Schellman said he didn't know Ferguson's policy on body cams. St. Louis Public Radio made repeated attempts to contact the Ferguson Police Department Sunday, but as of 2:30 p.m. no one had responded.

Shortly after the shooting, word spread to protesters at the nearby police station. Tensions were already high from an incident earlier. A protester who identified himself as a Peacekeeper said a Darren Wilson supporter had assaulted three women in the area.

Protesters who had been gathered at the police station traveled to the community center at the intersection of Stein Road and West Florissant, on the border of Ferguson and Dellwood.

Keith Rose has been involved with the protests since Aug. 11 and was at the intersection early on. He said some of the first officers on the scene put on body armor and had assault rifles. According to Rose, the initial police presence was striking. “I saw cop cars from every different municipality.” St. Louis Public Radio was unable to confirm the municipalities present other than Ferguson and St. Louis County.

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told protesters at the community center that one person had been shot and that was a police officer. He also told them to disperse.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told protesters at the community center that one person had been shot and that was a police officer. He also told them to disperse.

Tensions were high as more than a dozen police officers blocked Stein from inquisitive protesters, requesting that they remain out of the street on the sidewalk. Many of the approximately 50 protesters at the scene thought a civilian had been shot. As during other nights, people in Peacekeeper shirts stood between police and protesters, insisting that police instructions be followed.

Protesters addressed police officers, chanting, yelling and airing the grievance that the cops present should be from the community. One protester yelled through a bullhorn, “How about you live in the community you're policing. You don’t even know who you’re killing because you don’t live here.”

At the highest point of tension, one of the most vocal in the crowd challenged the police to “go to war.” For a brief period, some speculated that police were hiding a body.

Calmer heads prevailed and the crowd moved across the street. Over the following hour and a half St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, Peacekeepers and some protesters suggested returning to the Ferguson police station to resume protests there.

“If we want to talk, if we want to protest, we want to do it in a way that we can build,” said one protester.

The news also began to spread and gain credibility that a cop had been shot, not a civilian. By 11 p.m. only a handful of protesters remained at Stein and West Florissant, most returning to the Ferguson police station. Protests there were boisterous but not as tense.

Shooting on I-70

After midnight, a separate shooting was reported to the St. Louis County Police department. An off-duty St. Louis police officer was shot at while driving his personal vehicle on Interstate 70 between Hanley and 170. The officer was not hit by gunshots, but suffered minor injuries from broken glass. His vehicle was struck multiple times. In a press release sent out early Sunday morning, St. Louis County Police said it was "unclear at this time if the officer was targeted or if this was a random act of violence." 

A stretch of the interstate was closed off for roughly an hour during police investigation. This information had little effect on the crowd at Ferguson, which began to dissipate a little after midnight, with some protesters remaining.