FERGUSON, MISSOURI – Protesters clashed with riot police in the U.S. state of Missouri overnight after police reports released earlier on Friday said a black teen was a suspect in the theft of cigars from a store minutes before an officer shot him dead.
While Ferguson, Missouri, had been calmer over the last 24 hours after local law enforcement was replaced by state police led by an African-American captain, racially charged protests entered their sixth night since the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown.
Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said police fired a teargas canister at a crowd near a food and liquor store and broader violence and looting erupted.
The police reports released earlier did not explain what, if anything, Brown’s suspected theft had to do with the fatal encounter. There remains little clarity surrounding the moments leading up to Brown’s death.
Police were diverting traffic off a road that has become a major thoroughfare for demonstrators and a Reuters witness said the smell of gas drifted through the area.
About 200 people assembled in the area as rain fell, and some protesters threw bottles at riot gear-clad police who ordered the crowd to disperse.
Some chanted “hands up, don’t shoot,” while the Reuters photographer saw some people break into a handful of retail stores, one of which was the store Brown was suspected of robbing. Others who tried to enter the premises were stopped by other protesters.
Local broadcaster KMOV cited police as saying some protesters had started fires, including one at a store, and that one officer was hit in head with a bottle or a brick.
“I will say we talked all day about the release of the video tape at the food mart,” Captain Johnson, overseeing security since Thursday, told KMOV. “We had concerns that this would happen.”
Hours after the reports’ release earlier on Friday, 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 told a news conference.
Jackson’s announcements sowed 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 added to the frustration felt by many in the St. Louis area.
After identifying Wilson as the officer involved in the shooting, the Ferguson police chief described him 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, Jackson said.
Wilson’s identity has been kept a secret since the shooting despite mounting pressure to both identify the officer and to provide details about the investigation.
A Brown family attorney said it appeared to be Brown in the convenience store’s security camera footage, which showed a man shoving a store clerk during an apparent robbery.
Anthony Gray, a Brown family attorney, said the talk of a robbery was 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.
In response to demonstrations that turned violent earlier in the week, President Barack Obama said he asked the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate the killing independently.
The agencies on Friday said agents and attorneys had interviewed multiple witnesses and would seek information in the coming days from people who have not yet come forward.