FERGUSON – Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager whose shooting death by a white police officer unleashed riots in a Missouri town, was a suspect in a convenience store robbery, police said Friday.
The allegation reignited anger in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, with the 18-year-old student’s family accusing police of character assassination even as the investigation into his death continues.
Incident reports from the Ferguson police department linked Brown by name to the theft of a $49 box of cigars from a convenience store, just minutes before he was shot in broad daylight on a nearby street.
Police released surveillance footage showing a tall, muscular black man — in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals, the same outfit Brown was wearing — grabbing a store clerk by the shirt and shoving him.
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson identified the officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson, 28, a white six-year veteran of the force with no disciplinary record who had responded to a 911 call about the robbery.
The disclosures followed Ferguson’s first night of calm this week, after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Thursday ordered state troopers to take over from heavily-armed and distrusted local police.
“Last night was a great night,” said Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the African-American officer put in charge of restoring order and who became an instant hero for meeting protesters in person overnight.
In a statement to reporters, police chief Jackson stopped short of linking Brown by name to the “strong-arm” theft of a box of cigars from a convenience store, about 20 minutes before the youth was shot.
But the connection was made in an incident report, dated Saturday, that summarized the content of surveillance video from inside the unidentified corner shop that was allegedly robbed.
“The video reveals Brown enter (sic) the store” with his friend Dorian Johnson and engaging in “an apparent struggle confrontation” with a store clerk, before exiting with a box of Swisher Sweet cigars.
“It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident (in which) Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department,” the report added.
Through their lawyers, Brown’s family said they were “beyond outraged” at what they called a “devious” attempt to smear the character of their son, who had no criminal record and was about to start vocational college.
“There is nothing based on the facts that have been placed before us that can justify the execution-style murder of their child by this police officer as he held his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender,” the lawyers added.
Incredulous local residents suspected an attempt by Ferguson police, six days on, to rewrite the narrative in its favor, just as the FBI and federal Department of Justice pursue a civil rights investigation.
“I think they’re covering up a lot of things,” said one woman, interviewed on CNN, who did not want her name disclosed. “They’re covering up for this officer… Why wasn’t this said in the beginning?”
In the past week, protests escalated into confrontations with St Louis county police who donned military-style combat uniforms, armed themselves with assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets, and deployed armored vehicles.
The show of force was criticized as heavy-handed and over-militarized by critics from across the political spectrum, from civil rights leaders to President Barack Obama and Republican Senator Rand Paul.
In deploying state troopers, however, governor Nixon did not cede to demands that the core investigation into Brown’s death — running in parallel to the FBI probe — be taken out of the hands of St Louis County police.