FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) With measured remarks and a conciliatory tone, police, political leaders and civil-rights activists on Thursday sought to tamp down tensions after two police officers were shot in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a protest.
The officers were quickly released from the hospital, but St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said they could have easily been killed and called the attack “an ambush.” Meanwhile, people were taken in for questioning after a SWAT team converged on a Ferguson home near the shooting site. Police did not immediately offer details.
The shootings marked the first time in eight months of tension in Ferguson that officers were shot at a protest, and the bloodshed threatened to inflame the already fraught relationship between police and protesters just as the city seeks reforms in the wake of a withering Justice Department report on its law-enforcement practices.
The attack resonated all the way to Washington. President Barack Obama took to Twitter to relay his prayers to the officers and to denounce violence against police as unacceptable. “Path to justice is one all of us must travel together,” Obama wrote, signing the tweet with his initials to indicate the president personally composed it.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the shooting “inexcusable and repugnant.”
The shots were fired early Thursday just as a small crowd of protesters began to break up after a demonstration that unfolded hours after the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
The shots were believed to come from a handgun fired across the street from the police department, which has been a national focal point since the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer.
The gunman may have fired from up to 120 yards away, a long distance for most pistols. But with a line of roughly 20 officers standing in front of the building, the shooter did not have to be particularly accurate to hit two of them, Belmar said.
“We’re lucky by God’s grace we didn’t lose two officers last night,” Belmar said.
Both officers suffered significant wounds but were expected to recover, Belmar said.
A 41-year-old St. Louis County officer was shot in the right shoulder, the bullet exiting through his back. A 32-year-old officer from Webster Groves was wearing a riot helmet with the face shield up. He was shot in the right cheek, just below the eye, and the bullet lodged behind his ear.
Tensions have been high in Ferguson since August and escalated in November after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to prosecute Wilson. Justice Department investigators concurred with that finding in a report released March 4.
But a separate Justice Department report released that same day found racial profiling and bias in the Ferguson police force, and a municipal court system driven by profit, largely on the backs of black and low-income residents.
In the week after the report, Ferguson’s court clerk was fired and the municipal judge, two police officers, the city manager and Wilson voluntarily stepped aside.
John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist, said the shooting was conducted by outside agitators who are intent on hijacking attention from peaceful, reform-minded protesters.
Activists “cannot afford these kinds of incidents happening, because that gets us absolutely nowhere.”
In a statement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and the city council said that though they respect the right to protest peacefully, “we cannot continue to move forward under threats of violence and destruction to our community. We ask our residents and clergy in this area to partner with us as we make our way through this process.”
Belmar said he reached out to civil rights leaders, asking them to urge peace. He treaded lightly in response to questions about how police will prepare for other potential demonstrations. He said he will re-evaluate the security plan and seek manpower help from other departments and perhaps the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Not everyone was conciliatory.
Jeff Roorda, spokesman for the St. Louis police union, said the shooting was evidence that many people are not satisfied with Jackson’s resignation.
“What they wanted was to kill police officers, and that’s what they tried to do,” Roorda said.
He called for nighttime curfews. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said there are no plans to institute a curfew.
In amateur video of the shooting accessed by the Associated Press, two shots ring out and a man is heard screaming out in pain.
Someone at the scene, unseen and unidentified in the video, says: “Acknowledgement nine months ago would have kept that from happening.”
Officers saw some alarming trends prior to the shooting, Belmar said.
Fist fights broke out among protesters. Rather than staying in one group in a parking lot across from the police station, demonstrators were spread out over a wide area. Some reportedly threw rocks and bottles. Three people were arrested.
Though the crowd was small compared with some earlier protests, with fewer than 200, Ferguson officers were concerned enough to ask officers from neighboring towns to assist. By 10 p.m., 69 officers had responded, Belmar said.
Some protesters said there was a different vibe than most nights.
“It was a very rowdy group,” said Kristie Johnson, 32, who has been a frequent protester. “They were fighting each other. A lot of people out here tonight we haven’t seen before.”
Marciay Pitchford, 20, said she was near the street.
“All of sudden gun shots came through and everybody just started running,” she said. “It seemed like they were just trying to shoot any police officer. It came from behind our heads.”
Officers from St. Louis County and the Missouri State Highway Patrol planned to take over protest security in Ferguson on Thursday evening.
Jackson, chief of the 54-member police force for nearly five years, had resisted calls by protesters and some of Missouri’s top elected leaders to step down over his handling of Brown’s shooting and the weeks of protests that followed. He was widely criticized from the outset for the aggressive police response to protests and his agency’s erratic and infrequent releases of key information.
He took nearly a week to publicly identify Wilson as the shooter and then further heightened tensions by releasing Wilson’s name at the same time as store security video that appeared to show Brown stealing a box of cigars and shoving a clerk a short time before his death.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Josh Lederman in Washington, Greg Moore and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, and Summer Ballentine and Marie French in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.