Tuesday, May 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Slew of Documents Released on Ferguson Riots

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - Only deadly force by the National Guard would have prevented Ferguson rioting and looting after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, National Guard and Missouri Highway Patrol leaders said Tuesday.

National Guard Adjutant Gen. Stephen Danner and Highway Patrol field operations Cmdr. Maj. Bret Johnson spoke in a joint interview. Also Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon released hundreds of pages of internal Guard memos, emails, troop orders and timelines to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in response to a public records request.

Nixon has come under fire for letting Ferguson burn after a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for the Brown shooting. Hundreds of angry protesters immediately took to the streets, looting and burning dozens of businesses.

Though the National Guard was activated, it was not present during the looting. Troops were dispatched after the damage had been done.

Nixon, who had drawn criticism for a heavy-handed police response when protests turned violent after the shooting in August, now is being accused of not doing enough after the grand jury decision.

"We made that decision to choose life over property," Johnson said during the joint interview. Had the Guard tried to stop the arson and looting on Nov. 24, "the only way to stop that, with the amount of people there, would have been with deadly force. We would have used citizen soldiers against our citizens of the state of Missouri," Johnson said.

Danner told reporters that the National Guard was never meant to engage with protesters.

"When you're dealing with a civil disturbance and a tight-knit group of folks coming at you, you cannot string your soldiers down the street like so many parking meters," Danner said. "That is a danger to them."

Documents Nixon released to the Post-Dispatch show that the National Guard had no authority to stop the violence. The Guard was there to protect critical sites.

Troops were not authorized to shoot to protect property, make arrests or even stop protesters from committing most crimes. Danner told reporters that the National Guard's late arrival to Ferguson was not his call, as they were waiting on orders from the Highway Patrol.

The documents released to the Post-Dispatch show a sensitivity to the early complaints of over-militarization while planning for the aftermath of the grand jury's decision. Johnson spoke of a meeting before the grand jury decision with a coalition of protesters, who contended that tactics - including the use of armored vehicles and riot gear - police used after Brown's shooting in August had incited violence.

In response to the protesters' concerns, officials built a plan to keep police officers out of riot gear.

"If that was the case, and we're trying to do everything from our part to keep things calm, why would we have military soldiers in areas we knew were going to be active protest areas?" Johnson said during the interview.

The documents released by Nixon showed that the National Guard, in a presentation in October, said troops needed to be mobilized and staged early so that President Barack Obama would not need to send troops to Missouri.

In November, St. Louis County asked the Highway Patrol, which was coordinating the National Guard response, for troops to be stationed at the Ferguson Police Department, West Florissant Avenue and in the Canfield Apartments, where Brown was shot.

Instead, troops were placed at the airport, shopping malls and hotels hosting law enforcement and at county buildings in Clayton (the St. Louis County seat), but the Highway Patrol wanted troops off the front lines, according to the Post-Dispatch.

"Governor's intent to minimize external public appearance," the mission sets noted of deployment in Clayton, the Post-Dispatch reported. "Will place soldiers inside buildings at doors, stairwells, garages and other points of entry ... to support (police) in the event they overrun."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.