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Examining the role of politics in the response to Ferguson unrest

Hearings are underway at the state Capitol regarding how events in Ferguson were handled and the decisions that were made.

But before those hearings ever got started, ABC 17 News was doing its own investigation.

Our Jillian Fertig has spent the last two months examining emails and phone calls leading up to the arrival of the Missouri National Guard.

The riots of November 24 left millions of dollars in damage and left the ferguson community scarred.

It also left leaders there with a lot of questions. Questions that remained unanswered.

The response they got from the National Guard was nothing like they had hoped and nothing like the state’s leaders seemed to have promised.

So, what happened? Did politics trump citizen safety? Did local leaders misunderstand the guard’s role? Was the plan just poorly executed?

“Mister Speaker, this is James Knowles, it’s about 11 o clock,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles in a voicemail on the night of November 24. “Hey, buddy, I’d really appreciate your help getting through to the Governor. He is completely unresponsive. The National Guard is not responding. They’re letting our entire city burn.”

It was a plea that was made to many lawmakers the night of November 24 when attempts to reach Governor Jay Nixon were unsucessful.

Just hours before that phone call, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob Mculloch announced a grand jury had decided “no probably cause exists” to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Governor Nixon held a press conference just hours before the announcement.

“Together, we are all focused on making sure the necessary resources are at hand to protect lives, protect property and protect free speech,” Nixon said on November 24.

“The men and women of the National Guard also will be in the area to provide security at critical facilities like firehouses, police stations and utility substations, and offer logistical and transportation support as needed. This will free up law enforcement officers to do their jobs effectively.”

Those words from the Governor echoed ones he delivered on November 17 when he mobilized the guard in an Executive Order.

But they seem inconsistent with what local authorities understood a week before that.

Through an open records request, Fertig got a hold of an email sent from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar to a staff member on November 10.

It shows the Governor had no plans to move the guard to the Ferguson Police Department as part of its response to potential rioting.

In the email, Belmar writes, “Can we solicit the Governor to put the guard there? Apparently, the guard will not move to FPD per the Governor.”

The email also discuses a meeting among state lawmakers about the possibility of having Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson step down and the impact that resignation could have.

Belmar even seems to speculate the status of embattled Chief Jackson could have a bearing on the state’s response.

The Associated Press reported last month and ABC 17 News was able to confirm as well, that a meeting took place among federal, state and local officials in the fall about Chief Jackson.

Whether that meeting had anything to do with the state’s response on the night of the riots remains unclear.

But Fertig tried to get some answers by tracking down people who attended the meeting.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster was there.

Fertig asked him if he attended the meeting about Chief Jackson.

“I was at dozens of meetings related to Ferguson,” Koster said.

Fertig asked if he attended a meeting specifically about the Ferguson Police Chief and the possibility of pressuring him to step down.

“The chief was a topic that did come up, you know, whether or not he was doing a good job,” Koster said.

“Taking on the challenges of Ferguson has been something that has been discussed throughout the process.”

But did the chief’s unwillingness to step down change the way the Guard was deployed?

ABC 17 News reached out to the Governor’s office via email and phone and only received a statement that didn’t answer our questions.

Just hours before a legislative hearing on the issue, Governor Nixon held a press conference where those same questions were asked.

One of the first questions, why was the Guard not in Ferguson following the grand jury announcement?

“First of all, there Guard in in Ferguson. Everybody knows that. They were guarding the command posts and they were at other locations in Ferguson. So, I mean, I don’t mean to be chippy about that, but they were there,” said Nixon.

But local officials said the plan was changed weeks before the announcement. So, what or who changed his mind?

“I wasn’t pressured by anybody. Obviously, you talked to a lot of people, certainly whoever is…I understood the responsibilities. I was acting on, um, the advice of folks who were working with those on the ground.”

We asked Governor Nixon about the meeting between top state and federal officials about the discussion to pressure Ferguson Police Chief Jackson to step down.

“I don’t know which meeting you’re talking about, I don’t know which officials you’re talking about. I know there were discussions out there and I certainly saw stuff in the press about that.”

We also reached out to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson and received this response via email from the Ferguson Media Department:

“Chief Jackson has stated on many occasions that although some have called for his resignation, he was not being forced out of a job. He also had no intention to resign, and that remains the case today. He is not commenting on what lawmakers said about his job, or anything of that nature.”

The voicemail at the start of this story was Mayor Knowles calling then Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones. We arranged to talk with both Jones and Knowles at our ABC affiliate in St. Louis. What we found was that Knowles also has more questions than answers.

“I was told originally that National Guard troops were going to be placed in Ferguson. That was really the plan that Chief Belmar and others had proposed to the governor when they asked, ‘you need resources. What do you need?’ They asked for resources, they asked for national guard troops to be in Ferguson. I was later told that they would not be in Ferguson. That plan was rejected or changed,” said Knowles.

Knowles said he was told that instead, there would be police officers protecting those areas since the Guard would not be there.

“You saw that night there were hundreds of police officers protecting the police department, the fire department, and the downtown ferguson business district. But West Florissant didn’t have the protection it needed. I was told also that West Florissant would have protection from national guard troops that were to be stationed at the command center that was nearby. We later found out that those national guard troops weren’t at the command center. So even though those national guard troops wouldn’t be visible, I was told they would be nearby. Nearby was supposed to be the command center. We find out later they were actually at Lambert airport and it took them, by the time that I was told the governor had authorized them to be there, it took until 2 a.m. Before they actually showed up in Ferguson that night,” said Knowles.

Knowles said he exhausted every contact he had in the legislature from both parties to try to get in touch with the Governor to activate the Guard sooner, but to no avail.

Tim Jones said, “At approximately, 11 p.m. That evening, the mayor, James Knowles, contacted me and left a message on my cell phone. I don’t have a direct line for the governor either unfortunately.”

Despite several requests, Knowles said he has not been able to talk to the Governor since the chaos of that night.

However, the Governor maintains the plan executed that night was the right one.

“Not a single person was killed due to the unrest in Ferguson. Not a single shot was fired
by the patrol or any other other law enforcement agency. For someone to say, and it has been stated by several people, that we preserved life, no one was seriously injured or killed, so mission accomplished. But you tell that to somebody who’s had their life savings put into a business and then now they find out that insurance isn’t completely covering it because civil unrest isn’t covered by insurance.”

The questions still remain unanswered. Why was the Guard called in so late? Why did the original plan change? Did local leaders just misunderstand? Or were politics at play?

“I think it’s important that we just have an answer. It could be a bad answer. We’ve heard a few different answers at this point. If he made the conscious decision to allow those businesses to burn, because that was most important to him was to preserve life or that was his strategic decision, then he also needs to step up and make sure that those businesses, that area, those citizens are all made whole.”

We also tried reaching out to other lawmakers, who, according to that email, were at the meeting about Chief Jackson, including Senator Claire McCaskill. Our calls were not returned.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Nixon said he will be fully cooperative with the legislators holding the hearings to examine the decisions made in Ferguson.

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