ST. LOUIS (AP) — School officials concerned about students being waylaid by protests are asking the St. Louis County prosecutor to wait until classes are not in session to announce whether a white police officer will face charges for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old.
A grand jury is expected to decide by mid-November whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown. The shooting led to weeks of sometimes violent protests in and around the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and spurred a national conversation about race and policing. Law enforcement officials are already bracing for potential fallout from the decision. Last week, Riverview Gardens School District Superintendent Scott Spurgeon sent a letter signed by six other superintendents asking St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to announce the grand jury decision after 5 p.m. or on a weekend, preferably a Sunday, when there are typically no school activities or functions.
Riverview Gardens spokeswoman Melanie Powell-Robinson said there have been no threats against students but there is concern that protests could make it hard for them to get to or from school or for parents to pick them up because of traffic and road closures. While most students from Ferguson attend the Ferguson-Florissant district, some attend Riverview Gardens. The letter from Spurgeon is also signed by superintendents from the Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Jennings, Kirkwood, Mehlville and Normandy school districts, which together have about 20,000 students. “Information released during the school day has the potential to greatly affect school district operations and we implore you to refrain from making a grand jury announcement until such time as we can provide safe passage home for all students,” it said.
The start of the school year in Ferguson was delayed by more than a week in August because of concerns about student safety stemming from the protests. A spokesman for McCulloch said Tuesday the superintendents’ concerns are being considered. His office has not provided a timetable for announcing the grand jury decision once it is reached. To prepare for protests that could follow, law enforcement officers have been trying to build relationships with clergy and community leaders that could ease tensions on the streets while also stocking up on riot gear and establishing procedures for quick arrests. St Louis County police has spent $172,669 since August on teargas, grenades, pepper balls and other civil disobedience equipment. The department claims it has spent tens of thousands of dollars replenishing their stocks of teargas, “less lethal” ammunition and riot gear in advance of a potential revival in demonstrations. St Louis County police made the purchases amid concerns that hundreds of demonstrators will return to the streets if Darren Wilson, the officer who shot dead Michael Brown in August, is not indicted on criminal charges by a grand jury currently considering the case.
A breakdown of the department’s spending since August on equipment intended for the policing of crowds and civil disobedience, which totals $172,669, was obtained by the Guardian from the county force. Since the height of the protests, the department has spent almost $25,000 buying 650 teargas grenades, smoke-and-gas grenades, smoke canisters and “hornets nest” CS sting grenades, which shoot out dozens of rubber bullets and a powdered chemical agent upon detonation. It has spent a further $18,000 on 1,500 “beanbag rounds” and 6,000 pepper balls, paintball-style projectiles that explode with a chemical irritant when they strike a protester. The department uses LiveX branded pepper balls, which are billed as ten times hotter than standard pepper rounds. Another $77,500 has been spent on 235 riot gear helmets, 135 shields, 25 batons and 60 sets of shin guards, and other “uniform items”. A further $2,300 was used to buy another 2,000 sets of the plastic handcuffs that have been used to detain dozens of demonstrators plucked from crowds on West Florissant Avenue.
In addition, an estimated $50,000 has been set aside by the department for repair work for damaged police vehicles. However, in a sign that further clashes are expected, they are in fact “not repairing any vehicles until unrest is over”, a department inventory said. “We purchase these items in hopes that we never have to use any of them,” said Sergeant Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the county police department. “But it is our responsibility to have proper equipment to keep our police officers and all citizens safe should violence break out anywhere at any time.” In the event of further unrest, the new equipment is likely to be used alongside new purchases made by the city of St Louis’s metropolitan police force and the Missouri state highway patrol, which was handed temporary control of policing the protests at the height of August’s unrest, following criticism of the county force’s tactics by regional and national leaders. Captain Tim Hull of the state highway patrol confirmed to the Guardian that the force had bought new crowd control equipment since then. “However, the specific information is [a] closed record” under Missouri state law, Hull said in an email.
The Associated Press previously reported that Chief Sam Dotson of the St Louis metropolitan police said his force recently spent $325,000 on “civil disobedience equipment”. Asked by the Guardian to confirm this total and to provide details of what was bought, a spokeswoman for the force said in an email that this would take several weeks. The military-style police response to the demonstrations in August, which attracted intense global media coverage, led to calls for restraint from figures such as President Barack Obama and Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s senior US senator. Observers from Amnesty International said in a report earlier this month that an excessive police reaction to a small minority of violent protesters who threw bottles in Ferguson had run the risk of killing demonstrators and impinged on their human rights. They noted that the so-called “less-lethal” ammunition shot at crowds in Ferguson – such as wooden bullets, beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets – “can result in serious injury and even death”. The report found that “at least two children were treated for exposure to teargas” during the protests.
“Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police,” said the report. Many protesters want Wilson indicted for murder. The grand jury can choose first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter or no charges at all. Nine of the 12 members must agree for Wilson to be indicted. Wilson’s extended absence has led county prosecutors to drop six felony drug cases in which he was involved, including a 2013 marijuana arrest for which he received a commendation from the Ferguson City Council.
McCulloch’s spokesman said Tuesday that the drug cases won’t be prosecuted since Wilson missed several court appearances after disappearing from public view following Brown’s death. The office does not expect any other cases to be affected.