Protesters had gathered near the Ferguson police headquarters after Thomas Jackson, the chief of police, said he would step down next week. But the shooting, which occurred after midnight, took place as protests in the area were relatively quiet and after many demonstrators had left, according to police.
“This is really an ambush,” Jon Belmar, chief of St. Louis County police, said during a news conference Thursday morning.
The two officers, one of whom was shot in the face, were in serious condition after the shooting, but police said that the injuries were not life-threatening.
“Fortunately, with both officers, we don’t have any remarkable long-term injuries,” Belmar said. “We’re lucky.”
Belmar said that three or four shots were fired from across the street from where about 75 protesters and 40 police officers were gathered. He said that the shots did not come from the group of protesters who were gathered near the police station.
“These police officers were standing there and they were shot,” Belmar said at an earlier news conference Thursday morning. “Just because they were police officers.”
The FBI has offered to help investigate the shooting of the two officers in Ferguson, according to a law enforcement official.
On Thursday afternoon, the county police said they and the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security for protests in the city beginning that night.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. forcefully denounced what he called “the heinous and cowardly attacks,” saying Thursday that the shooting of two police officers should not impact the progress the city has made in recent days.
“What happened last night was a pure ambush,” Holder said Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C. “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk, a punk, who was trying to sow discord.”
The two officers, both men, were not identified by police. One of the officers was a 32-year-old on the police force of Webster Groves, Mo., another St. Louis suburb. That officer, who has been on the force for 7 years, was shot in the cheek and the bullet wound up lodged near his eye.
The other officer was a 41-year-old on the county police force. That man, who had worked as an officer for 14 years, was shot in the shoulder and was “in a tremendous amount of pain,” Belmar said.
Many officers pulled out their guns after the shots rang out, but none of them fired, Belmar said.
Belmar said Thursday that police do not have any suspects, but said they have some possible leads that detectives are exploring. Authorities believe that the shots were fired from a handgun or pistol, and are examining shell casings recovered at the scene.
The county police descended on a house in the area as part of the investigation into the shooting, and “several” people were brought in for questioning, according to Sgt. Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the department. He said that no arrests had been made as of Thursday afternoon.
While he said he was careful not to assign blame, he called the atmosphere surrounding the protests “very troubling” and said it can be difficult for officers to properly police these gatherings.
“The responsibility of last night’s shooting lies with whoever did that shooting,” Belmar said. “I want to be very clear about that. But it is a very difficult environment to work in.”
Ferguson is in a tense period of transition, as the city is still reeling from the protests that erupted last year and unsure about what other changes are coming after the Justice Department report.
“Each day, our law enforcement officers risk their lives to protect the public and the fact that these officers appear to have been intentionally targeted is deeply troubling,” Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said in a statement.
He added that the Missouri State Highway Patrol had contacted the county police and was also prepared to help with the investigation.
Steve Stenger, the St. Louis county executive, praised the efforts of law enforcement on Wednesday night and into Thursday.
“Certainly, we’d like to see a safe environment where people can express their First Amendment rights,” he said. “Situations like this and incidents like this are extremely unfortunate.”
The three men were repeatedly cited in the Justice Department’s report that laid out a litany of problems with the city’s approach to law enforcement. Investigators made their way to Ferguson after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer.
On Thursday, Brown’s parents condemned the shooting of the two officers.
“We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement,” Brown’s parents said in a statement released through their attorney. “It cannot and will not be tolerated. We specifically denounce the actions of stand-alone agitators who unsuccessfully attempt to derail the otherwise peaceful and non-violent movement that has emerged throughout this nation to confront police brutality and to forward the cause of equality under the law for all.”
Brown’s death in August sparked a series of frenzied, fraught confrontations between heavily-armed police and large groups of protesters. Ferguson became the epicenter of a national debate over race and policing, one that stretched from coast to coast and has continued into this year with police shootings in Wisconsin and Georgia.
Some of the protests and the reactions to the shootings have prompted complaints from police officers, who have said they felt under attack.
There have been other violent episodes aimed at police in recent months. In September, two police officers in the St. Louis area were fired upon, and one of them was hit in the arm; police said the separate incidents did not appear tied to any protests.
Belmar point to what happened in New York, saying that his department came very close to seeing what happened there.
“We could have buried two police officers next week over this,” he said.
The Ferguson shooting comes a week after two police officers were shot and killed by suspects over back-to-back days. A Georgia officer was shot in what police described as an ambush, while a Philadelphia officer was shot after he happened to go into a video-game store while a robbery was in progress and attempted to stop it. And a day before the shooting in Ferguson, Josie Wells, a deputy U.S. marshal, was shot and killed in Louisiana while he and a team were trying to arrest a fugitive wanted for murder.
“It took me 30 seconds before I realized there was an officer down,” Markus Loehrer, who said he was near a crowd of protesters in Ferguson on Wednesday night and early Thursday, told CNN. “The protesters were not there to shoot cops…. We just began to run.”
Loehrer said he was worried that officials would use the shooting outside the Ferguson police headquarters as an excuse to take a hard line.
“I think they will take this as an opportunity to strike back,” he said.
Sari Horwitz and Justin Moyer contributed to this report.
[This post has been updated. First published: 9:02 a.m.]