Speaking at a press conference Thursday morning to address the earlier shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar drew parallels between this incident and the December 2014 killing of two officers in Brooklyn, New York.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we were very close to having happen what happened in the NYPD with Officer Ramos and Officer Liu," Belmar said, referring to Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, two New York City policemen who were shot and killed while sitting in their patrol car a few days before Christmas. "We could have buried two police officers over this."
The officers were shot in the early morning hours Thursday during an at times tense protest outside Ferguson police headquarters. Immediately after the shooting, both officers—one, a 32-year-old from the nearby Webster Groves suburb, and the other, a 42-year-old St. Louis County policeman—were in serious but not life-threatening condition, according to a police spokesman.
The officers, who haven't been identified by name, have since been released from the hospital.
The protest—one of many since the August 2014 shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown by a local police officer—came in the wake of a critical Justice Department report accusing the city government and police department of racial bias. Belmar said protesters began to gather after the resignation Wednesday afternoon of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson—the latest of several city officials to step down amid harsh criticism regarding their conduct. But most protesters had dispersed by midnight, he said, leaving only about 100 left outside the station.
Belmar said he issued a directive to his officers regarding how to monitor the protest.
"I called my staff, and I said, 'Listen, I want this like we always do this. I want this to be a very measured response by the police department.'"
Witnesses to the shooting, which Belmar described as an "ambush," said the bullets came from more than 200 yards away, across from the headquarters on top of a hill; during his press conference, the chief said officers indicated the distance was closer—about 125 yards.
Belmar said they have some leads in the case, and he believes "there was an unfortunate association" between whoever shot the officers and the protest itself.
Two Democratic Missouri congressmen announced Thursday afternoon that they would offer a $3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.
"What happened in Ferguson last night was a terrible tragedy, and we cannot stand idly by as others transgress," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said in a statement.
Rep. Lacy Clay called the shooting a "cowardly ambush," echoing Belmar's phrasing. "The path of violence does not lead to justice," he said in a statement.
During the press conference, Belmar said he supports protesters' First Amendment rights, but described the difficulty police officers have monitoring large protests when some participants' "tenor "¦ can be very troubling."
"This is beginning at times to be very difficult for any law enforcement agency anywhere to really wrap their arms around," Belmar said. "I want everybody here to understand how difficult this is to do it the exact perfect way. It's very tough."
Ferguson, a city with a population akin to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, saw a significant shake-up in its city government since the Justice Department report came out last week. A municipal court judge who was accused in the report of initiating exorbitant and "abusive" fees for certain offenses resigned on Monday. Those fees included increasing financial penalties each time a person failed to appear in court or pay a fine, or had repeat housing violations. The city manager—in charge of supervising the police department and choosing the municipal judge—was voted out of his office Tuesday by the Ferguson City Council, though the city said the departure was a mutual decision with the manager.
Belmar said he hopes community leaders will engage with the Ferguson community to ratchet down some of the tension, in case there are continued protests.
"I don't know if we'll have any issues tonight," he said.