Authorities are scaling back police presence in Ferguson, Missouri
Capt. Ron Johnson says there's been a notable change: Police are listening
Protests followed deadly police shooting of unarmed teen this month
St. Louis County police chief defends the use of tear gas, military equipment
Police are scaling back their presence in Ferguson, Missouri. But that doesn’t mean their jobs are done.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was chosen by the state’s governor to head up security as tensions between police and protesters boiled over in the St. Louis suburb.
Protests erupted in Ferguson this month after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed.
Police have said Brown was trying to grab the officer’s gun. Witnesses say the teen was holding his hands in the air when he was fatally shot.
As a grand jury and federal civil rights investigators carry out investigations into the controversial case, tensions have been running high in the town of 21,000, where there’s a history of distrust between the predominately black community and the largely white police force.
Brown was African-American. Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot him, is white.
Now that the situation has cooled, St. Louis city police officers are heading back to their normal duties, the Missouri National Guard is no longer part of the operation, and some state troopers have pulled out, Johnson said.
There’s been a notable change on the ground, Johnson said: Law enforcement is listening as protests continue. And officers must keep trying to build better relationships with the community going forward, he said.
“When this first started … I wondered if there would be a day that law enforcement and the community would see peace together,” he said. “And I’ve seen that. I’ve seen hands being held. I’ve seen adults laughing. I’ve seen kids taking pictures. I’ve seen policemen listening. I’ve seen arms come unfolded.”
As he announced that the command center that authorities had been using to coordinate responses to the protests was shutting down, Johnson steered clear of giving details about the police response over the past two weeks.
He said he couldn’t provide the total number of arrests made during the protests or reveal operational plans going forward.
Asked how authorities handled allegations of police misconduct, Johnson said, “any officer that we were notified about or we identified that’s conduct was inappropriate, the proper actions were taken.”
Police tactics to calm the crowds drew sharp criticism, including a rebuke from Attorney General Eric Holder.
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Holder said as the protests unfolded.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he didn’t regret his agency’s decisions to fire tear gas at protesters. That approach, he said, was much better than using nightsticks or dogs.
Even though President Barack Obama has called for a review of military equipment sales to police in light of the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Belmar said that such equipment is often necessary.
“I never envisioned a day that we would ever see that kind of equipment used against protesters,” he said. “But I also never imagined a day in 28 years when we would see that kind of criminal activity spin out of peaceful demonstrations.”