Within hours of Michael Brown’s death, a blanket of red rose petals and rows of lighted candles covered the ground where the black teenager had been shot, but the scene soon erupted into violence when local police rolled in after a trash bin caught fire.
The rose petals were crushed. The candles were knocked over. And soon police were standing atop a firetruck, assault rifles in hand, while other officers arrived with dogs.
“That night set the tone. They trampled the memorial. They came with attack dogs. The entire scene was culturally insensitive,” said Antonio French, a Democratic alderman in St. Louis.
What followed, leaders of the African American community said, was a series of missteps that have caused them to lose faith in Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Some have called for his resignation.
This is why they have been pushing so hard for federal involvement in the investigation, they said.
“There is no faith in his leadership,” said Jamala Rogers, founder of Organization for Black Struggle, who lives five miles north of Ferguson. “There are people who believe he should step down. I believe there will be a more unified voice on this soon.”
The most notable misstep, leaders said, was Jackson’s decision to release video of Brown that appears to show the 18-year-old stealing cigars from a convenience store at the same time Jackson released the name of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown. Concerns intensified after the community learned that Wilson had no knowledge of the alleged crime when he encountered Brown. They also soon learned that Jackson had released the video despite a Justice Department request to withhold it.
“That was one of the most bizarre press conferences I’ve ever seen,” said Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township. “It appeared to be an attempt for character assassination. It could dirty the jury pool. It was just ugly.”
French and other leaders said that Jackson’s failure to apologize, and his decision to ignore the Justice Department’s advice, call some of his actions after Brown’s death into question.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said the friction between the community and the police force has been exaggerated and fueled by agitators in surrounding communities.
“Everyone is screaming at the police chief, but those are outsiders. I have hundreds of e-mails from outsiders calling for him to resign,” said Knowles, who is white and ran unopposed in April when he was reelected. “Not any of them are from the people who show up at neighborhood watch meetings or other meetings that take place every week with this community.”
Jackson quickly recused himself and his department from the investigation, then handed it over to the St. Louis County Police Department, where he has close friends and allies.
He has worked for the department for two decades, and retired from there before becoming Ferguson’s police chief four years ago.A family newsletter from the time included a picture of a cake from his retirement party that illustrated how seamless the transition was. It read: “Happy Retirement/Rehirement Tom!”
“He came from there. I don’t think it surprised anybody when he did that,” Bynes said of the handoff to St. Louis County.
Requests for an interview with Jackson were submitted to a public relations firm that has been hired to represent the department. Representatives from the firm did not respond to multiple requests.
Although Jackson’s actions and the police department’s aggressive response to the protests have inflamed racial tensions, distrust of the department has been a problem for years.
The Ferguson Police Department has 53 officers, three of whom are black. They patrol a community that is 67 percent black and 29 percent white.
In a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jackson said he has struggled to develop a more diverse department.
“It’s been issues like pay and just the job pool,” he said. “Everybody is competing for good quality police officers of all races.”
Officers are required to go through diversity training every year, he added.
But it’s more than the racial disparity, African American community leaders said. Many of the officers live elsewhere, in largely white suburbs. Jackson lives in Florissant, which is 86 percent white, 10 percent black, with less than 1 percent of residents Native American, Asian or other races. Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, lives in Crestwood, which is 91 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent black.
The way the department polices the area is another problem.
Attorney Pamela J. Meanes, past president of the Mound City Bar Association, said the city budget shows that one of the greatest revenue streams is from fines imposed on residents for minor infractions such as jaywalking.
“There were more than 5,000 traffic stops last year — 68 percent were black and only 12 percent were white drivers,” Meanes said. “They have created a system where revenue relies on harassing the community.”
Meanes said this has created a toxic relationship between the community and the police and it is one of the reasons she and other leaders are welcoming the federal probe.
“The citizens of Ferguson have lost faith in the people who are entrusted with protecting them,” she said. “We need the federal government here to take over. It will restore faith and help heal the community.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.