On August 9, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. In the days since his death, Ferguson has been rocked by protests, some of which have turned violent. On Saturday, August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on Ferguson, closing the streets from midnight to 5 a.m. (though that has since been lifted).
Here are the essential facts you need to know to understand who Brown was, how he was killed, and why the nation’s eyes are on Ferguson.
1) Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown on Saturday, August 9.
Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson around noon on Saturday, August 9. Wilson, 28, is six-year veteran of the Ferguson police department, with no prior disciplinary record. Although the exact circumstances of the shooting remain unclear, Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. All shells found at the scene were from Wilson’s gun.
Brown had graduated from Normandy High School in Wellston in the spring of 2014. He was planning to begin classes at Vatterott College on Monday, August 11, two days after he was killed.
2) Ferguson is a majority-black city with an overwhelmingly white police force and city government.
Ferguson is a majority-black town. According to the 2010 census, about 67 percent of residents are black and 29 percent are white.
That racial makeup is not reflected in the town’s institutions. Ferguson’s mayor is white. Five of the six members of its city council are white. Six of the seven members of its school board are white.
And, most importantly, its police force is overwhelmingly white. Out of the 53 commissioned officers in the Ferguson Police Department, only three are black. And the chief of police, Thomas Jackson, is also white.
There is also evidence that the Ferguson police department, like many other local law enforcement agencies, disproportionately stops and arrests black residents. According to a racial profiling report from the Missouri Attorney General’s office that was obtained by Buzzfeed, of the 5,384 traffic stops made last year, 4,632 of them — 86 percent — targeted black drivers. Only 684, or 12.7 percent, targeted white drivers, even though Ferguson is almost 30 percent white.
The report also found that innocent black people were much more likely to be searched than innocent white people were.
Yet black people were also far more likely to be arrested than whites. According to the same report, 92.7 percent of all people arrested by the Ferguson police in 2013 were black, and 6.9 percent were white.
3) Police and eyewitnesses gave contradictory accounts of the shooting.
Some details of what occurred during the shooting are undisputed. Brown was originally stopped for jaywalking, because he and a friend were walking in the middle of the street. Wilson fired multiple shots at Brown, at least one of which was fired from his squad car. Brown was unarmed, and all of the shells found at the scene were from the officer’s gun.
There is also some physical evidence available. On Sunday, August 17, the Brown family released a preliminary report on the private autopsy they had commissioned. Dr. Michael M. Baden, who conducted the examination, found that Brown was shot at least six times, and all of the bullets were fired into his front. Baden also determined that Brown had been shot twice in the head, and that a bullet that hit the top of his head was most likely the shot that killed him.
However, many of the other details of what happened remain unclear, and a police account of the shooting are different from what eyewitnesses have said happened.
Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him when the shooting occurred, gave this account to MSNBC: Johnson said that he and Brown had been walking in the middle of the street when a police officer approached and told them to use the sidewalk. They complied, and the officer began to drive away, but then threw his car into reverse and came back alongside the teens, nearly hitting them. Johnson heard Wilson say something like “What’d you say?”, before trying to open his car door, slamming it into Brown. Then the officer reached out and grabbed Brown by the neck with his left hand. The two men struggled briefly, and then Wilson, still in his car, shot Brown once.
Johnson said that he and Brown both attempted to flee, but Brown was shot a second time. After the second shot, Brown turned around and surrendered, putting his hands in the air and saying, “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!” Johnson said that Wilson then approached Brown and fired several more shots, killing him.
Eyewitness Piaget Crenshaw told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was waiting for a bus when she saw a police officer try to place Brown in his squad car. Then she saw Brown attempt to flee, with his hands in the air. The officer shot Brown multiple times as Brown ran away, said Crenshaw, who has provided photographs of the scene to law enforcement.
The local police who are tasked with investigating the shooting, by contrast, claim that Brown was killed after he assaulted Wilson. St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar said that the shooting occurred after Brown pushed Wilson back into his squad car, “where he physically assaulted the officer” and then struggled over Wilson’s weapon. According to Belmar, Wilson then fired once from the car, and then several more times as Brown attempted to flee. Belmar’s verbal account has thus far been the only source for Wilson’s version of events, as no incident reports of the shooting have been released despite media requests. During a briefing on Wednesday August 13, Ferguson Police chief Tom Jackson said that Officer Wilson was injured during the encounter with Brown, and that the side of his face was “swollen” afterwards.
4) The police have refused to release the autopsy report or any information about their investigation of what happened during the shooting.
The St. Louis County Police are in charge of the local investigation into Brown’s death. However, they have refused to release the report from the autopsy conducted by the St. Louis County medical examiner, or any details about the evidence they have gathered so far. This lack of information has become a major rallying point for the protesters, who have made repeated demands that Wilson be brought to justice.
Despite the lack of detail, there are worrying signs that investigators may not be approaching the investigation in a thorough, professional manner. For instance, the police apparently did not interview Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson until Wednesday, August 13, even though he was a key eyewitness.
5) The protests were met with an aggressive police response.
Although the protests have been largely peaceful, they have nevertheless drawn an extremely heavy police response. On Saturday, more than 100 officers from 15 different local departments arrived at the scene, bringing police dogs in an effort to control the crowd. The departments’ use of dogs has since been roundly criticized by law enforcement experts, with former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper saying that “using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do.”
The aggressiveness of the security operation escalated during the following days, and involved the use of military equipment and tactics. Officers deployed through the streets wearing full body armor and gas masks, and carrying rifles. They also used MRAP armored vehicles originally designed to withstand explosions from land mines or IEDs, and a sound weapon called a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD.
Some improvement was seen on Thursday, August 14, after Capt. Johnson from the highway patrol was placed in charge of the security operations.
Johnson’s tactics emphasized communication over confrontation, and they immediately produced a much calmer atmosphere in Ferguson. On Thursday evening, he marched with protesters, and apologized for the use of tear gas. Later that night, he spoke to the press while holding a photograph of Michael Brown — a powerful symbol of respect.
6) The police released information suggesting Brown had stolen from a convenience store, but that wasn’t the reason Wilson stopped him.
In marked contrast with the lack of detail about the autopsy or investigation into the shooting, the Ferguson police did release information on Friday that suggested Brown may have stolen cigars from a local convenience store shortly before his death, including a copy of a police report and surveillance video footage of the alleged crime, which Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson referred to as a “strong-arm robbery.”
The video footage released by police appears to show a man taking cigars from behind the counter, and then shoving the store clerk aside when he attempted to block the door.
Jackson has been heavily criticized for releasing the footage, particularly after he indicated, hours after the release, that Wilson was not aware that Brown was a robbery suspect at the time. Jackson said that the “initial contact was unrelated to the robbery,” and that Wilson was not responding to a call about the robbery. Instead, he had stopped the teen for jaywalking. Many have noted, even if Wilson had stopped Brown because of a robbery, that fact alone would not make it legal for Wilson to shoot Brown while he was surrendering. (Jackson later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson thought Brown could be the robbery suspect during the course of the stop, when he saw the packet of cigars Brown was holding.) He said he released the information to comply with requests from journalists.
On Saturday, it was reported that Jackson had released the robbery footage and police report over objections from the Department of Justice. An unnamed law enforcement source told NBC News that the DOJ had urged local police not to make the footage public, arguing that it could inflame tensions in the town.
Many local residents greeted Jackson’s announcement with outrage. Brown’s family said, through their lawyer, that they believed the release of the robbery footage was “strategic,” and an “attempt at character assassination.” And a handful of protesters in Ferguson did turn violent for several hours that night, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency the following day.
7) The federal government is also investigating Brown’s death.
The Justice Department is investigating the shooting to determine whether it violated Brown’s civil rights.
Two days after Brown was killed, on August 11, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the shooting deserved “a fulsome review” and announced that FBI agents from the St. Louis field office would conduct a “concurrent” investigation into Brown’s death, working with attorneys from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the US Attorneys’ Office.
The DOJ announced Sunday, August 17, that a federal medical examiner would conduct a new autopsy of Brown’s body. That will be the third time an autopsy is done in this case.