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Missouri Lege Blasts Governor Over Ferguson

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - The Missouri Legislature turned up the heat this week on Gov. Jay Nixon for his handling of the National Guard during the Ferguson riots.

Dozens of businesses in Ferguson burned at the hands of protesters after a grand jury's Nov. 24 decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Nixon deployed the National Guard in early November in anticipation of the grand jury announcement. The governor said that violence would not be tolerated.

But those testifying Wednesday at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Government Accountability painted a different picture.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told the committee that he tried unsuccessfully to get members of the National Guard to help control the aftermath of the jury's decision.

Knowles testified that he tried to reach two members of Nixon's staff, Jason Zamkus and Peter Lyskowski, but could not reach them. He said he did talk to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, state Attorney General Chris Koster and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, but none of them were able to reach anyone in the governor's office that night.

Firefighters from the Eureka and Pattonville Fire Districts testified that initially they were promised protection from the guard, only to be told otherwise when fire district leaders arrived at the emergency operations center the day of the grand jury announcement.

Firefighters had to leave buildings burning due to gunfire in the area.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, chairman of committee investigating Nixon, a Democrat, said abandoning a plan to protect firefighters was "just unbelievable."

"I know any firefighter having to put down a hose and leave like that must be extraordinarily difficult," Schaefer said.

Nixon was in a tight place in November no matter the grand jury did. He and state and local police had been criticized after the shooting for over-militarization of police. That criticism came after police responded to successive nights of violent protests with armored vehicles in the streets.

Now, many of those same leaders are criticizing Nixon for not doing enough after the grand jury's announcement.

Nixon defended his handling of the Ferguson situation during an unrelated news conference Wednesday.

In Ferguson, "over the course of four months, the men and women of the Highway Patrol often worked night and day, away from their families to protect citizens' right to speak and to keep people safe," Nixon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"It was hard, thankless work under the most difficult conditions, which they performed with the courage and selfless resolve that we have come to expect. As a result, not a single person was killed in the unrest in Ferguson."

Nixon said police were forced to sacrifice buildings to save lives.

He said he chose to have St. Louis County police officers, who were trained under the Peace Officer Standards and Training Program, to handle the initial wave of rioting in Ferguson business corridors, instead of the National Guard.

"The theory here and the practice was that people who had been on the front edge of this, literally getting yelled at, getting things thrown at them, getting called a lot of names, that those POST-certified officers were the people to be in front," Nixon said at the news conference. "None of us are happy that there were shots fired. None of us are happy that there were buildings burned down. This wasn't a joyful time for anybody.

"But I think when this is looked at, the discipline that was shown there, we are talking about what tactically should've been done and what buildings were damaged. It's a lot better than the discussion after Kent State."

Nixon referred to the Kent State University protests in May 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine.

The Joint Committee on Government Accountability was formed in 2004 to study inefficiency, fraud and misconduct in state government. It consists of seven senators and seven House members.

Schaefer told the Post-Dispatch the committee will hold more hearings on the matter.

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