The police chief of St. Louis County said Thursday that he believes whoever shot two police officers outside the Ferguson Police Department had an “unfortunate association” with protesters there.
“I feel very confident that whoever did this was there for the wrong reason, not the right reason, and came there for whatever nefarious reason it was,” Chief Jon Belmar said in a news conference. “But I do feel like there was an unfortunate association with that gathering.”
A St. Louis County police officer and an officer from the suburb of Webster Groves were shot just after midnight Thursday. The officers had been helping with crowd control for protesters who gathered outside the police department after the announcement of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation.
Witnesses told local and national news outlets that the shots came from a hilltop across the street from the protests.
Belmar said in the news conference that officers saw muzzle flashes about 125 yards away from the police line. He said that he believed the weapon used was “a pistol, a handgun,” based on shell casings recovered in the area, the sound the shots made and the nature of the injuries to the two officers.
A reporter pressed Belmar on how confident he could be that the shooter or shooters “was associated with the protest rather than taking the protest as an opportunity to try to shoot a cop.”
“There are indications that would lead us to believe that obviously some of the folks that were there to participate last night, in expressing their opinions, they were spread over a wider area than just confined,” he said. “That did extend not only to the north and the south, but also to the west.”
In his remarks, Belmar emphasized that the responsibility for the shooting lay with whoever carried out the crime and not the demonstrators as a whole.
But he repeatedly said that it was “very difficult” for police officers to distinguish between peaceful protesters and people who pose a threat, particularly when it’s dark and there are large crowds to watch. Those were the conditions at the time of the shooting, Belmar said.
“I’m not blaming anybody other than the individuals that took a shot at my officers and hit them,” he said. “But I am telling you that these are situations that it’s very difficult for us to navigate through if you’re a police officer on the street.”
Belmar said it was a “miracle” that the shooting was the first incident of its kind since protests over the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown began last summer. He then invoked the fatal shooting of two New York City police officers in December.
“We were very close to having happen what happened in NYPD with Officer [Rafael] Ramos and Officer [Wenjian] Liu,” he said. “We could have buried two police officers next week over this.”
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