Police Cite Threats in Deciding Not to Name Officer Who Shot Missouri Teenager

Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. –Getty Images

FERGUSON, Mo. — The chief of police here said Tuesday that he had reconsidered his decision to release the name of the police officer involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager and would not do so because of concerns about the officer’s safety.

The Ferguson Police Department had said it would release the officer’s name by noon Tuesday, but then it reversed itself after it said that threats had been made on social media against the officer and the city’s police.

“The value of releasing the name is far outweighed by the risk of harm to the officer and his family,’’ the police chief, Thomas Jackson, said in announcing a decision that was quickly criticized. The officer has been placed on administrative leave.

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The change came amid another day of protests in the St. Louis suburbs where the teenager, Michael Brown, 18, was shot several times Saturday by an officer as he and a friend walked from a convenience store. The circumstances of the shooting remain in dispute. The police say Brown hit the officer and tried to steal his gun; Brown’s family and friends deny that.

The FBI has opened a civil rights inquiry into the shooting, and the case is being investigated by the St. Louis County Police. The results of an autopsy on Brown have not been released.

The protests have at times turned violent: Stores have been looted and at least one business was set on fire. The police have made more than 40 arrests since Sunday and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.

During a peaceful protest march Tuesday to the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office in Clayton, Missouri, the seat of St. Louis County, demonstrators chanted “Don’t shoot!’’ and raised their hands over their heads — the pose they say Brown was in when he was shot.

Also Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration barred aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet over Ferguson. The county police department had asked the agency to issue the ban Monday after its helicopters were shot at “a couple of different times,’’ said Brian Schellman, a department spokesman.

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President Barack Obama, in his first comments about the shooting, called the death of Brown heartbreaking but urged residents to remain calm.

“I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions,’’ the president said in a statement Tuesday, “but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding.’’

In an interview Tuesday with MSNBC, Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, gave a description of the shooting. He said that he and Brown had been walking in the street when an officer drove up and told them to get onto the sidewalk. The two stayed in the street after telling the officer that they were close to Johnson’s house. The officer, who had passed them, then backed up, almost hitting them in doing so. He then tried to open his door, which hit Brown, and when the door bounced shut, the officer reached out and grabbed Brown.

“Mike was trying to get away from being choked,’’ Johnson told MSNBC. At that point, he said, the officer pulled a gun and fired, striking Brown. Brown “did not reach for the officer’s weapon at all,’’ he said.

Johnson said he and Brown began to run, and while he ducked behind a car, Brown kept going. After Brown was shot a second time, Johnson said, he turned to face the officer with his hands up, the officer fired several more shots and Brown fell.

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Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing the Brown family, said Tuesday that Johnson had yet to be called in for questioning by the police and wanted to speak only to federal authorities.

“He does not trust the local law enforcement community,’’ Crump said. “How could he? He saw his friend executed.’’

Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Florida in 2012, criticized the Ferguson police chief’s decision not to reveal the name of the officer who killed Brown. He said it only deepened the mistrust among blacks in the city, which is about two-thirds African-American but has a police force that is predominately white.

Jackson said a provision of state law allowed police departments to withhold an officer’s name if there were concerns about personal safety. Normally, a department has 72 hours to disclose a name.

The rash of threats on social media, Jackson said, led to his decision. He said he had also ordered his officers to ride two to a car because rocks were being thrown at patrol cars.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, at a news conference Tuesday in St. Louis with the Brown family, called for an end to the violence in Ferguson.

“Some of us are making the story about how mad we are,’’ he said. “To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was.’’

Michael Brown Sr., the victim’s father, echoed that sentiment. “I need justice for my son,’’ he said.

Later, a crowd gathered outside a church where members of the Brown family appeared with Sharpton. Many people urged calm, reminding one another that television cameras were present; some people made sure others did not spill into the streets.

“Stay on the sidewalks,’’ one man said. “The whole world is watching.’’