9 essential facts about Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown

Amanda Taub

On August 9, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 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 5am.

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

Imani Harris, Cathryn Fraction, Zoi Williams, Destiny Barnett and Zion Jamerison pose for a portrait with their signs during a protest of Michael Brown's shooting. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Michael Brown 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

Demonstrators gather along West Florissant Avenue to protest the shooting of Michael Brown. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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:  21.7 percent of black people who were searched were found to be carrying contraband, which means that about four out of every five of them were innocent.  However, searches of white people produced a contraband "hit" 34 percent of the time.

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

ERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 16: Police get instructions before being deployed in response to protests in Ferguson. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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 time 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) Several different law enforcement agencies are involved in the response to the shooting and the protests

Many law enforcement agencies have played roles in the investigation into Brown's death, and in the security response to the protests that followed. At times, this has caused serious problems.

Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, works for the Ferguson Police Department. After the shooting, Ferguson's police chief asked the St. Louis County Police to take over the investigation, so they are the ones who are tasked with gathering evidence for a potential case against Wilson.

From August 9 through August 13, there were at least four police departments in Ferguson participating in the security operation: the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis City Police Department, and the Missouri Highway Patrol. There were also reports that additional police from other nearby towns were also on the scene.

For the first few days of the protests, command of the security operation in Ferguson rotated between different departments, Jackson, Ferguson's police chief, said during a press conference. As my colleague Dara Lind points out, that system was a disaster in terms of police accountability:

More importantly, it made it impossible for one police chief to be held accountable for what officers are doing in Ferguson. It wasn't clear what the relationship was between an "incident commander" who was making decisions at the protest site, and the chief of his police department. But because the public didn't even know which agency the "incident commander" was with, it was impossible to demand that that police chief restrain his officers. When Ferguson chief Jackson gave his press conference Wednesday, he was asked whether there would be tear gas used on Wednesday night. He said, "I hope not." But he honestly couldn't make any promises, because it turned out that the St. Louis County police were the ones in charge. Now, Governor Nixon has officially designated the Missouri Highway Patrol as the agency to whom the public should be directing their demands for accountability and de-escalation.

On Thursday, August 14, Gov. Nixon "reframed" the command for the security operation in Ferguson, placing Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, a Ferguson native, in charge of security operations.  Although multiple departments are still participating in the operation, they are now under a single non-rotating command. Johnson has publicly acknowledged that communication between departments is poor, with Ferguson police releasing information about the case without telling him first.

On Monday, August 18th, Gov. Nixon announced that he had also ordered the state national guard to Ferguson, to assist in "restoring peace and order to this community."

5) The police have refused to release the autopsy report or any information about their investigation of what happened during the shooting

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 16: A demonstrator carries a picture of Michael Brown during a protest along Florissant Avenue on August 16, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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.

6) Protests began immediately after Brown's death, and continued throughout the week

Police fire tear gas at demonstrators. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Protests erupted in Ferguson as soon as news of Brown's death began to spread. A crowd began to gather around the scene of the shooting almost immediately, while Brown's body was still lying in the road. His body would remain there for several hours. (Ferguson Police Chief Jackson later said that he was "uncomfortable" with the amount of time that Brown's body had been left on the ground.) After the demonstration at the scene dispersed, a smaller group of approximately 100 people gathered outside Ferguson police headquarters and continued to protest.

Non-violent protests continued on Sunday, but tensions began to rise between the demonstrators and the police, who had deployed with military equipment and body armor. One video, from CNN, showed an officer shouting at protesters to "bring it, you fucking animals! Bring it!"

The protests briefly erupted into violence on the night of Sunday, August 10, when a group of people looted and burned a QuikTrip convenience store. A SWAT team used tear gas to disperse the looters, and at least 32 people were arrested.

Protesters remained largely non-violent during the demonstrations from Monday to Thursday, but on Friday night there was more looting. A group of community leaders organized non-violent protesters to protect the businesses being targeted, and they eventually managed to defuse the situation, and the looters dispersed by about 4am.

On Saturday August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, and announced that there would be a curfew from midnight to 5 am. Most protesters obeyed the curfew over the next two nights, but the the areas did not clear without a certain amount of turbulence, with police using tear gas to disperse crowds — in some instances hitting children and journalists — and in response to what they say was violence from protesters.

7) The protests were met with an aggressive police response

Police forces fire tear gas during a protest. (Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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 even further 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 Accoustic Device, or LRAD.

Some improvement was seen on Thursday the 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.

8) The police released information suggesting Brown had stolen from a convenience store, but that wasn't the reason Wilson stopped him

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of the Ferguson police officer responsible for Brown's death.. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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 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. As Vox's Dara Lind and Ezra Klein 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.

9) The federal government is also investigating Brown's death

FBI Agents investigate the shooting. (Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

On Saturday, August 16, Johnson, of the Highway Patrol, announced that 40 FBI agents were on the ground in Ferguson and would be canvassing door-to-door in the neighborhood where the shooting took place in the hope of finding eyewitnesses to testify about what had happened. The FBI also handed out cards requesting information from local residents.

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: the St. Louis County medical examiner performed the first one, and Brown's family also commissioned its own private autopsy.

According to a statement by Justice Department spokesperson Brian Fallon:

Due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family, Attorney General Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner. This independent examination will take place as soon as possible. Even after it is complete, Justice Department officials still plan to take the state-performed autopsy into account in the course of their investigation.

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