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Nixon on National Guard: 'Not the best path forward to get into a gunfight on the street'

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon talks with reporters in St. Louis. Nixon was on the defensive Wednesday about not having National Guardsmen in Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon talks with reporters in St. Louis. Nixon was on the defensive Wednesday about not having National Guardsmen in Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson.

Gov. Jay Nixon remained on the defensive Wednesday about his decision not to station the National Guard in Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson.

“The only other action you could take is go directly after folks that were causing that problem,” Nixon told reporters today in St. Louis. “And the only way to deal with it beyond what happened would have been the use of lethal force.

“It was clearly not the best path forward to get into a gunfight on the street in November,” he added. “That would not have been something that would have been useful or helpful.”

The governor’s fierce defense comes as the Missouri Senate continues to look into his decision-making during the turmoil.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the St. Louis County police wanted the National Guard on Canfield Drive and West Florissant Avenue after the grand jury's decision. Both places saw protests after Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9. (St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar talked about those discussions with St. Louis Public Radio on Tuesday.)

But AP reported that county police were told that move “did not appear to meet the governor’s intent for initial National Guard use.” And in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri National Guard Adjutant Gen. Steve Danner said the guard was “not authorized to shoot to protect property in Ferguson, make arrests, or even stop people from committing most crimes.”

Nixon’s faced plenty of criticism for not having the guard in Ferguson before the grand jury's decision. But  at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis today, Nixon said, “I do think that making sure that in the hierarchy of responsibilities, saving lives was first behind saving properties was the right way to come at that.” He has repeated those points over the last few months.

“When you have that level of gunfire, when you have that level of activity – there is nobody who is going to run at that,” Nixon said. “What you need to do is make sure that the two pillars that we operate under the entire time – speech and safety – are where your focus is. And on speech, I don’t think anybody in the world thought there was a lack of free speech this summer and into the fall in the Show Me State.

“As far as safety? The fact that no other lives were lost, no one else was shot and we were able to make it through a very difficult situation with that level of discipline -- I think is important,” Nixon said. “Those officers were safe.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said earlier this week that Nixon’s explanations didn't make much sense. He pointed out that the National Guard were called into Ferguson after businesses had burned down. 

The remains of Hidden Treasures, an antique store in Ferguson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The remains of Hidden Treasures, an antique store in Ferguson.

Nixon "risked having a clash by putting National Guard on the streets in front of businesses,” Knowles said. “It very well could have erupted again. It didn’t. And thank God nobody was hurt on either night.... But the logic doesn’t flow when you use excuses like that.”

In response, Nixon said the guard was used on the second night “to secure crime scenes.” He said, “That’s a much different role than being on the front edge.”

For his part, Knowles also said Nixon’s contention that the National Guard’s presence would have sparked deadly clashes is “very offensive to men and women in uniform who train for this sort of thing.”

“Many of these National Guard troops are actually police officers,” Knowles said. “And so, there was opportunity to get certified police officers from the National Guard to augment and supplement the efforts of the Highway Patrol and the county and the municipalities here on that night.”

Ill communication

After contending that the governor gave his city little notice he was creating a panel named after his city, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III applied to the commission.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III at a Ferguson City Council meeting last year. Knowles said he found it difficult to communicate with Nixon's office.

Knowles has said he couldn’t reach Nixon’s office on the night of the grand jury decision – and added he had to go through other Democratic and Republican officials to get a response.

Nixon rarely appeared with Knowles at press conferences before the decision – opting instead to be with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. And Knowles wasn’t informed about the creation of the Ferguson Commission. (Nixon’s office said it told Ferguson City Manager John Shaw about it before the governor unveiled the plan.)

When asked if the unflattering coverage of his town may have played a role in the lack of communication with the governor’s office, Knowles said he that he heard from Democrats in the Missouri General Assembly that Nixon wasn’t particularly good at keeping people in the loop.

“I was concerned that... he was trying to keep at arm’s length either from me or us as the city or the government. Was it due to my political affiliations?” said Knowles, who is a Republican. “And the response I heard time and time again was ‘this is just the way he is.’ Which was surprising to hear this from people in his own party to say that he is often times disengaged from the legislature.”

Asked why his office didn’t communicate well with Knowles or other Ferguson city officials, Nixon paused for several seconds and replied: “We have stayed in contact with local officials throughout the entirety of all of this.”

Nixon discusses his relationship -- or lack of relationship -- with Ferguson's city leaders.

“And I don’t personalize it to individuals. Clearly we’ve had a lot of communication with a number of officials there,” Nixon said. “But also equally as clearly: The challenges and problems that occurred after Aug. 9 were far broader than just Ferguson and far broader than just the Ferguson Police Department. It required a much broader unified command and significant efforts to move forward.”

Nixon said it made sense to include Dooley and Slay at press conferences, since the St. Louis Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department were part of the “unified command” dealing with the protests and rioting.

“We were dealing broadly with that,” Nixon said. “The two most significant in size law enforcement institutions there were in the city and the county. And we worked cooperatively with them in the entire time we were there.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.