FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - Minutes before a police officer shot him dead, Michael Brown had become a suspect in the theft of cigars from a store, according to police reports released on Friday after days of protests in a St. Louis suburb over the unarmed black teenager’s death.
But what, if anything, that had to do with the fatal encounter became less clear as the day went by. Hours after the reports’ release, police said that Officer Darren Wilson, 28, had no idea 18-year-old Brown was a robbery suspect. He simply wanted Brown to move from the road to the sidewalk, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said at a news conference
“He was walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic. That was it,” Jackson said.
After nearly a week of accusations that the Ferguson Police Department did not know how to communicate with the public, Jackson did little to dispel that image during two appearances on Friday.
He was visibly nervous, stuttering as he fumbled his notes, and made announcements that only sowed more confusion. After releasing the robbery incident report without any attempt to explain its fuller context, he let more than five hours pass before confirming, and only when asked, that Wilson did not know about the robbery when he encountered Brown.
The decision by the police department, which is overwhelmingly white, to release a report on the robbery while keeping details of the shooting secret only served to fuel outrage that has roiled the St. Louis area.
After identifying Wilson as the officer involved in the shooting, Jackson described the officer as a “gentleman” who has been devastated by the incident. Wilson worked four of his six years as an officer on the Ferguson police force, the chief said.
Wilson’s identity has been kept a secret since the Aug. 9 shooting and authorities had been under mounting pressure to both identify the officer and to provide details about the investigation to ease unrest in the largely black community.
Since Saturday’s killing, which took place shortly after noon on a street running through a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood, protesters have converged on Ferguson, casting a spotlight on area racial tensions.
Anger over the shooting brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Ferguson, and triggered nightly clashes from Sunday through Wednesday with police officers in riot gear.
Civil rights groups have complained that Brown’s death is the latest in a long history of racial profiling and harassment by police, and discriminatory arrests.
Some residents saw the police report on the robbery as the latest example of the pattern.
“This is how the police operate here, they always defame the name of the victim,” said area resident Arthur Austin, 39. “The more I hear, the less I trust what the police are saying.”
A Brown family attorney said it appeared to be Brown in the convenience store’s security-camera footage, which showed the teenager shoving a store clerk during an apparent robbery. Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Brown that day, told the FBI and Justice Department officials about the robbery this week, his lawyer said.
Anthony Gray, a Brown family attorney, said the talk of a robbery was “unfair” to the family and a “distraction” raised by police. He said the real issue was why Wilson shot an unarmed Brown as the teenager held his arms in the air in a sign of surrender, as two witnesses described.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the civil rights group National Action Network, which is paying for Brown’s funeral, issued a statement on Friday condemning what he called a “smear campaign” against the teenager.
Sharpton said he would lead a rally in Ferguson on Sunday with Brown’s family, who expressed outrage at the police report in a statement on Twitter.
“There is nothing based on the facts that have been placed before us that can justify the execution style murder of their child by this police officer as he held his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender,” the statement said.
According to the account given by Jackson and the police reports his department released, police received a call about the robbery and an ensuing altercation with a clerk at 11:51 a.m. on Aug. 9. A suspect description went out over police radio.
Officer Wilson left a prior call he was on and then encountered Brown at 12:01 p.m. Three minutes later Wilson had fatally shot Brown, and other officers and an ambulance were dispatched to the scene, Jackson said.
Wilson, who has been put on paid administrative leave, has been shielded from the public since the incident. A lone police car sat outside Wilson’s single-story brick house on Friday, and neighbors posted signs on their doors asking to be left alone. One neighbor said Wilson had not been seen for days.
Another posted a sign on their door that read simply: “We don’t know anything. Pray for peace.”
The police version that has thus far been provided of Brown’s shooting differs markedly from witness accounts, including that of his friend Johnson.
In their earlier account, police said Brown reached into the patrol car and struggled with Wilson before the officer pulled his service gun and shot Brown multiple times. Wilson sustained a facial injury, which was treated in a hospital, they said.
But Johnson and one other witness have said that Brown was trying to get away from the officer, who tried to grab him after telling him to move off the street and onto a sidewalk.
Brown held up his hands in a sign of surrender but was shot several times, they said.
Police have acknowledged that Brown’s body was more than 30 feet away (nine meters) from the police car when he collapsed and died and that multiple shell casings were found at the scene.
Additional reporting by Jason McLure in St. Louis, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Carey Gillam; Editing by Eric Beech