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How Ferguson police made the situation worse

Since the shooting death of Michael Brown last weekend, the local police department's response has been defined by its ability to make a bad situation worse.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson speaks during a news conference at the police headquarters in Ferguson, Mo., Aug., 13, 2014.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson speaks during a news conference at the police headquarters in Ferguson, Mo., Aug., 13, 2014.

A police chief slips out the back door. Officers dress in military fatigues and fire tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. Authorities can’t seem to get their story straight.

Since the moment a Ferguson, Missouri cop shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown last weekend, the local police department's response has been defined by its ability to make a bad situation worse.

Just hours after it seemed like Ferguson had turned a corner, the police department provoked fresh outrage Friday after releasing a series of conflicting statements on the events leading up to Brown's death, transforming a day that was supposed to provide answers to grieving residents into a renewed period of unrest.

In a brief press conference Friday morning, a visibly uncomfortable Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson finally released the name of the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, a detail residents had demanded since the teen’s death. But instead of shedding new light on the police shooting, authorities released a police report and video surveillance footage alleging Brown had stolen cigars from a convenience store shortly before his fatal run-in with Wilson. Jackson declined to answer questions from reporters.

The police chief was also noticeably absent from a press conference Saturday during which Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Ferguson.

The allegations Friday threw a new wrench into the case. The report claimed that Wilson was responding to a police dispatch description of a suspect in a robbery. But later in the day, at another confusing press conference, Jackson revealed that Wilson didn’t know the teen was a suspect in the robbery.

“The police officer stopped the victim because the victim was walking in the middle of the street,” Jackson said.

That revelation led reporters to ask Johnson why the police report and surveillance footage were released if the alleged robbery had nothing to do with Brown being stopped.

“Because you asked for it,” Jackson said of the media.

But the police chief walked back that claim later Friday afternoon, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson was aware of a robbery nearby and that the officer realized Brown might have been a suspect when he saw cigars in the teen’s hands.

Federal authorities opposed the release of the surveillance footage, a law enforcement official close to the investigation told NBC News. Federal authorities had a copy of the tape, and it was released by the Ferguson Police Department at the objection of the feds, the official said.

The release of the police report and surveillance footage appeared to irk Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was tasked Thursday with overseeing security in Ferguson after days of aggressive police tactics in response to growing unrest. Jackson didn't give Johnson notice that the footage would be released, and Johnson said he first saw the images Friday morning on the news.

"I'm going to talk to the chief later about inclusion in some of these press conferences. We probably could have said some things differently at that press conference and maybe given out some information in a different way," Johnson told reporters Friday.

Jackson's statement Friday and the release of the police report and surveillance footage raised more questions than it answered. But the police department's poor performance was evident long before Friday's developments.

Authorities still haven't released official details of the shooting, despite residents and reporters asking for an explanation. The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI have taken the lead in investigating the shooting after local police handed over the case.

According to eyewitness accounts, Brown had his hands in the air when Wilson delivered the fatal shot. Brown’s body lay for hours in broad daylight on the residential street where he was killed. According to The New York Times, a man who lives across the street from the scene of the shooting claimed that police prevented a woman who said she was a nurse from giving Brown medical attention.

After days of unrest in the majority black suburb, tensions boiled over Wednesday night. St. Louis County Police, who were at the time called in to help provide security, descended in military fatigues and riot gear, launching tear gas canisters and flash grenades at throngs of protesters. More than a dozen people, including two journalists and a St. Louis elected official, were arrested that night. Images from the scene showed what looked like a military siege on the community.

The crackdown drew widespread condemnation from local and national leaders. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill met with Ferguson residents Thursday and called for the police response to be demilitarized. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul also called for the demilitarization of the police, which he tied to the problems of "big government." And Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader, called on President Obama to impose martial law in Ferguson so protesters could march peacefully.

Obama weighed in on the police presence Thursday, saying there was “no excuse” for the military-style response to the protests. He also condemned "those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," and that "there is never an excuse for violence against police." 

After the Missouri Highway Patrol took over Thursday in Ferguson, the situation on the ground appeared to cool off. Capt. Johnson and other officers marched peacefully with protesters and there were no reported arrests overnight.

But hours after Jackson's contradictory statements Friday, the relative calm was upended by looting and police again fired tear gas. “There were 300 protesters last night, but the protesters went home and the looters came out,” Johnson said.

Ferguson residents expressed frustration over the police response in interviews with msnbc.

“Everyone out here, we’re mad and frustrated for a reason. Because we are not getting the truth,” Gerald McNary said. “But we have a lot more questions. We are Ferguson citizens and we don’t know what he’s doing about any of this or how he plans on making us feel safe. Because I don’t feel safe in this neighborhood full of cops with guns.”

Trymaine Lee and Amanda Sakuma contributed reporting from Ferguson, Missouri.