IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

St. Louis on edge with looming grand jury verdict in Michael Brown case

With the grand jury decision looming on Michael Brown’s case, the community teeters on edge as it prepares for what is expected to be another round of protests.
Police face off with demonstrators outside the police station as protests continue in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death on Oct. 22, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Police face off with demonstrators outside the police station as protests continue in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death on Oct. 22, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

A Missouri grand jury is expected to announce within a couple of weeks whether the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson in August will be indicted in the teen’s death. The city is on edge with police officers and protesters bracing for the decision, as the logistical and emotional pangs of preparing for the unknown continue to mount.

A spokesman for the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office said he expects the grand jury to render a decision by mid-November -- a rather vague time frame that has fueled rumors and speculation around how and when the jury’s decision will be announced.

Many details remain fluid and largely dependent on how Brown’s supporters and police respond to the grand jury's decision. Here's what we do know: 

  • The grand jury is continuing to pore over evidence in the racially charged case of white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shooting and killing Brown, who was black and unarmed. 
  • Law enforcement from across the region have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new weaponry and riot gear in preparation for potential unrest if there’s a decision not to indict Wilson. They're also meeting regularly to hash out plans for a range of "what-ifs." 
  • The Justice Department last week conducted a two-day training for police commanders in the area on implicit racial bias and policing.
  • The dead teen’s family—amid the procurement of weapons, ongoing protests and legal machinations— remains heartsick and on edge.

"The police are getting ready for war when they should be getting ready for a trial. That to me means they’ve already made their decision,” said Ty Pruitt, a cousin and spokesman for Brown’s family. “We still feel terrible. Right now we feel about the same way we felt when [Brown] was lying dead in the middle of the street for four and a half hours.”

Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, said there’s a good chance Nixon will make a public announcement ahead of the grand jury's decision. Holste said he could not elaborate on a time frame or specifically what the governor would say.

A source with knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not given permission to speak about them, tells msnbc that Nixon is expected to announce that in the wake of the grand jury's decision the National Guard will be re-deployed to Ferguson to safeguard local businesses. When asked specifically about a possible redeployment of guardsmen, Holste said “I’m not in any position to talk about what kinds of preparations are being made.”

"If you show up in tanks, you’re preparing for a war zone and so you’re going to get a war zone."'

President Obama spoke with Nixon over the phone Friday evening for an update on the situation and to again offer assistance to the Missouri governor if needed. Earlier in the day, Justice Department officials briefed the president on efforts to aid to the state and local government. He will continue to receive updates on the situation from Attorney General Eric Holder and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, White House officials said in a statement.

Brown’s shooting death August 9 sparked widespread protests and unrest. Some businesses were looted and burned. Police sprayed tear gas at peaceful protesters and pelted them with rubber bullets.

At least a half-dozen witnesses say Brown was fleeing and turned with his hands up in surrender when Wilson opened fire, killing him. Expert analysis of an official autopsy leaked to reporters suggests a gunshot wound to the back of Brown's arm could have come from a bullet fired at him from behind. Brown was struck at least six times, with fatal shots to the head.

Wilson, for his part, has reportedly told investigators that he feared for his life and shot the teen after a struggle for the officer's gun. Brown also suffered a gunshot wound to his hand, according to a pair of autopsy reports, one commissioned by Brown's family and the other prepared by the St. Louis County medical examiner and subsequently leaked to reporters.

Police and protesters have clashed violently In the wake of Brown’s killing and both groups have at times clashed in a legal and constitutional tangle. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and police have been accused of violating demonstrators’ rights and various other abuses, including unlawful arrests and aiming weapons at journalists . Activists say they are preparing for more of the same if Wilson is not indicted and large-scale protests break out. 

As early as Monday morning the St. Louis County NAACP was working in concert with police and the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office to meet with school representatives to help prepare them for a decision. Last month a group of seven school district superintendents from area schools sent a joint letter asking McCulloch to hold off on announcing the grand jury's decision until a weekend or after school hours. Ed Magee, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said the office is considering the request but that no decision has been made as of yet.

A U.S. District Judge on Wednesday barred Ferguson police from enforcing a policy that had prevented people from standing still while protesting on public sidewalks. The injunction follows a similar ruling last month against the St. Louis County Police Department and Missouri Highway Patrol that found the policy unconstitutional for violating the protesters’ freedom of speech rights.

The ACLU of Missouri on Thursday launched a smartphone app designed to hold police accountable for their interactions with protesters by tracking their exchanges through audio and video files that are automatically sent to the group.

Since Brown's shooting, ACLU of Missouri's Jeffrey Mittman said, "we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints from people who are routinely stopped, searched, humiliated and bullied into compliance by law enforcement officers."

The app, Mittman said, "will empower Missourians who have traditionally felt powerless.”

Police and protesters planning

Reports released by human and civil rights groups in recent weeks described in stark detail a litany of alleged abuses in Ferguson.  

Amnesty International in its report framed Brown’s killing and the police response to the protests it sparked as a global human rights concern. 

Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. are expected to travel to Geneva this week to testify before the UN Committee Against Torture which will be evaluating the U.S. government’s compliance with international human rights treatises against torture.

“This is not about white and black or about police and hood folks,” Pruitt, the family spokesman said. “This is about humanity. What happened to Mike was a crime of humanity. I don’t care how you put it.”

Law enforcement are expected to continue meeting to hash out their contingency plans on a response to the grand jury’s decision. Leaders of the so-called unified command -- which includes the St. Louis County police, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the St. Louis city police department -- have been holding almost daily meetings to go over contingency plans and logistics.

“They are meeting literally weekly and all talk by phone every day,” said Sgt. Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County police. “They have a plan in place and they have been meeting at least weekly if not daily and discussing those plans and going over everything operationally.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said he expects protests to break out across the St. Louis area, most likely near the Ferguson Police Department and in downtown Clayton, where St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office is located. Knowles said police plan to be more mobile and reactive -- a departure from tactics used during the early days of demonstrations when heavily-armed police in riot gear and armored vehicles blocked roadways.

“It’s not going to be about lining up a fixed line of law enforcement officers out there,” Knowles said in an interview with a local news station last week.

Community groups and protesters have also been meeting and strategizing. Brown's supporters on Monday met with a few high-powered friends, including longtime civil rights advocates Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. Religious leaders from Ferguson and other nearby municipalities, including the city of St. Louis where a second black teen was fatally shot by police last month, also plan to open their church doors as safe havens for protesters in case mass protests break out when a decision is announced.

The Don’t Shoot Coalition, a collection of roughly 50 local groups, is calling on law enforcement officials to agree to “rules of engagement.” The group has drafted a list of 19 demands, including 48-hour advance notice before police release the grand jury's decision to the public and that police only wear riot gear as a last resort and avoid using armored vehicles, rubber bullets and tear gas entirely.

Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney at the Advancement Project who has been in negotiations with local law enforcement officials, said if police respond to protesters by looking for a fight, they’ll likely get one.

“If you show up in tanks, you’re preparing for a war zone and so you’re going to get a war zone,” Lieberman said. 

‘Rioting doesn’t make any sense’

Pruitt, the Brown family spokesman, said the family has little trust in the investigation into Brown’s death or the judicial process at this point. He compared the situation to the lynching of black teen Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Two alleged perpetrators were acquitted in Till's killing, and the Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation in 2004.

Till "was dragged out of his relative’s house, murdered and dropped in the bottom of a swamp and there is still no justice,” Pruitt said in a phone interview on Thursday. 

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said the family remains hopeful but that from the outset of the case the family has believed county prosecutor McCulloch would not or could not fairly prosecute Wilson because of McCulloch’s close ties to law enforcement. He said the family has been told by law enforcement that they would get advanced notice before an announcement would be made.

“We’re hoping at least 24 hours but we haven’t been given a specific time frame,” Crump said.

Pruitt said he’d be lying if he didn’t think there would be a violent response if the grand jury does not indict Wilson.

“We’re just waiting and we’re more worried about the aftermath,” he said.

UPDATE: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to a gunshot wound in Wilson's arm. The wound was in Brown's arm.