FERGUSON, Missouri – Law enforcement officials scrambled late Thursday to locate the gunman responsible for shooting two police officers here before dawn. A group of about 100, meanwhile, gathered for a candlelight prayer vigil beginning at 8 p.m. local time, as the Missouri Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police assumed command of security detail for potential overnight protests. By midnight, the streets of Ferguson were all but empty.
Earlier Thursday, tactical SWAT teams stormed a home located just over a mile away from the police station, where officers took three people into custody for questioning. They were later released Thursday afternoon, the St. Louis County police told NBC News. And according to local activists, police spent Thursday questioning protest leaders about the shootings, but did not take any into custody.
Both of the police officers who were shot – one in the shoulder, the other in the cheek – were released from the hospital Thursday after sustaining serious injuries in what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar described as an “ambush” attack. Despite numerous videos circulating online showing the scene’s immediate aftermath, as of late Thursday, police were unaware of any footage showing the actual gunfire.
“I ask Missourians to join me in calling for calm in the wake of the cowardly and reprehensible ambush of two police officers who were acting to protect the public,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a Thursday statement. “I also thank all the brave law enforcement officers who selflessly risk their lives each day to keep communities safe.” Members of the NAACP met with community leaders Thursday afternoon to discuss a strategy for diffusing tensions.
Protests began with a peaceful tone Wednesday as groups gathered before the Ferguson Police Department to mark Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation, announced earlier that day. But shortly after midnight, as demonstrators said the rally was dying down, gunshots quickly prompted the crowd to disperse. Belmar said police heard “three or four” shots ring out and saw muzzle flashes from roughly 125 yards away from where the two officers were struck. Both officers were rushed to the hospital in serious condition.
“We’re lucky, by God’s grace, that we didn’t lose two officers last night,” Belmar said in a press conference.
Days earlier, the Justice Department released a scathing report that tore at the Ferguson police department for widespread abuse and racial bias that infringed upon the constitutional rights of African-Americans. A city manager and a judge were the first to resign in the report’s aftermath, followed by Jackson, who is set to receive of year of pay as his severance once he formally leaves on March 19.
Elected officials from the local level on up to the highest office in the country swiftly condemned the shooting. “Violence against police is unacceptable,” President Obama said in a tweet from the White House. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called the violence a “heinous assault.” “What happened last night was a pure ambush. This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson; this was a damn punk,” Holder said.
Meanwhile, two Missouri congressmen, Democratic Reps. Lacy Clay and Emanuel Cleaver, offered a $3,000 reward for information that would guide police to arrest the suspected gunman. “I completely condemn the cowardly ambush of the brave officers who were wounded last night in Ferguson,” Clay said in a statement. “I ask everyone to join me in prayers for their swift recovery and for healing in our community. The path of violence does not lead to justice.”