Chief Thomas Jackson, head of the beleaguered police department in Ferguson, Missouri, said he’s unaware of any behind the scenes plans to force his resignation or a takeover of his department by the county police.
“Nothing has changed as far as I’m concerned,” Jackson told msnbc in an exclusive interview Wednesday evening. “I’m saying the same thing I’ve been saying. I’m not sure where any of this is coming from, from who or why they are saying this. But it’s their business. I’ve already moved on from it.”Jackson’s comments come less than 24 hours after news broke about a possible backdoor deal being brokered between local, state and federal officials that would include Jackson’s resignation as part of a plan to shake up the department still at the center of a maelstrom over the shooting and killing of an unarmed black teen in August by one of its officers.
Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9 after what police say was a struggle over Wilson’s weapon. Police have said Wilson told them he feared for his life, according to a New York Times report citing anonymous government officials briefed on the case. A host of witnesses to the shooting refute the police narrative saying instead that Wilson fired on Brown as the teen attempted to flee the officer, delivering the fatal gunshots as Brown turned to surrender with his hands up.
A grand jury is currently reviewing evidence in the case and is expected to decide whether or not to indict Wilson in Brown’s death by mid-November.
MSNBC reported early Wednesday morning that local, state and federal officials were working on plans for a shakeup in the department. Sources with direct knowledge of the plan say details are still being hashed out in closed-door meetings between Ferguson city and St. Louis County officials.
A federal official tells msnbc that the Justice Department is also being consulted.
Two sources who are familiar with the plan say Jackson’s resignation would be the first move ahead of a complete takeover of the department by the St. Louis County police. A source within the Obama administration confirmed to msnbc that plans for a shakeup of the Ferguson Police Department were in the works, but said that details have not been fully worked out.
A state official on Wednesday afternoon, who has been briefed on the plans by a federal official who has been part of the planning process, said “it’s not a done deal, but it’s close.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has denied any knowledge of plans to have Jackson resign, and he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch via text message that he has also not been contacted by any federal officials regarding plans for the St. Louis County police to take over the Ferguson police department.
Attorney General Eric Holder declined to comment on a major police reform effort during an interview earlier Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum, citing the Justice Department’s investigation into allegations of institutional discrimination by the police department.
Holder allowed though that the need for “wholesale change” in Ferguson’s police department seemed “pretty clear” and “appropriate.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that department is appropriate,” Holder said. “Exactly what the form of that change will be, I think, we’ll wait until we complete our inquiry.”
The Justice Department is conducting a civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Brown, as well as the entire department for allegations of past discriminatory practices.
After more than three decades in law enforcement, Chief Jackson has landed in what could be described as a nightmare scenario for the head of a largely segregated police department: the racially fraught shooting death of an unarmed black teen.
While Jackson is the public face of the department at the center of the controversy over Brown’s death, he handed over the investigation of the shooting to the St. Louis County Police Department almost immediately after it happened.
Just days after Brown’s death, Jackson told msnbc that another high-profile killing of a black teen had flashed before his eyes. He said the Brown case and the outpouring of community grief and anger recalled the early days of the Trayvon Martin case, in which an unarmed teen was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was tried for murder and acquitted.
In the immediate aftermath of the case, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was skewered for what many saw as a botched investigation. The Sanford City Council first gave Lee a vote of no-confidence. Then he was asked to temporarily step down from office. Eventually he was fired.
“I remember watching that and thinking, this is so horrible,” Jackson said that day back in August, four days after Brown’s death, following a town hall meeting in a little church not far from Ferguson.
The protests at that point were beginning to grow angrier, as Jackson refused to identify the officer involved or give many details about the shooting.
“They’re angry at what I represent,” Jackson said. “But I understand. This is my city, I live here too, this is my community.”
The anger directed at Jackson and his department has not subsided much, particularly among the die-hard protesters who continue to demonstrate in Ferguson. Almost three months after the shooting, the department still has not released a fully detailed incident report of the shooting, itself a violation of department policy.
Critics have blasted Jackson for his lack of communication. Many residents were outraged at the way the police initially handled Brown’s body, leaving his remains under a scorching hot sun for more than four hours.
A number of missteps by the department in the wake of the shooting intensified the anger and distrust many felt over the shooting itself. A particularly damming moment was a press conference in mid-August in which Jackson finally, awkwardly released Wilson’s name as well as a video reportedly showing Brown stealing a pack of 99-cent cigars from a convenience store and shoving a clerk not long before the shooting death. Hours later, Jackson held another press conference to say that the alleged robbery had nothing to do with the shooting and that Wilson didn’t even know Brown was a suspect when he shot him.
Late last month, Jackson recorded a video apology to Brown’s family and peaceful protesters who had been tear-gassed and pelted with rubber bullets during demonstrations. The apology was rejected by Brown’s family and widely viewed by the family’s supporters as too little, too late.
The night the video apology was released, Jackson attempted to extend an olive branch to protesters who had gathered outside the police headquarters. He emerged from the station to chanting and yelling protesters denouncing him as insincere. Jackson met the protesters face-to-face and asked what he could do to make things better. A group of protesters asked him to march with them in a show of respect.
Jackson agreed, but even that simple act of goodwill ended up biting him.
As Jackson stepped down the street, a gaggle of demonstrators created a boundary between him and more angry protesters. Moments later came a commotion from the rear, followed by shouts and – as seen in photos and video from that night – the image of one of his officers barreling through the crowd, knocking protesters to the ground.
In the bedlam that followed, several protesters were arrested, including some that appeared to have their hands and feet cuffed and were dragged from the crowd.
The missteps and miscalculations, as well as the ongoing anger over Brown’s death and growing concern that a grand jury will not indict Officer Wilson, has created a volatile backdrop to the still-solidifying plans to remake the Ferguson police department.
On Wednesday night, when asked by msnbc whether it is in the best interest of the community for him to step down, Jackson bristled.
“I’m not even willing to talk about that publicly,” Jackson said. “Right now I have a job to do and I’m going to stay here and get the job done.”
That job, he said, “definitely isn’t getting any easier.”