Committee blasts Nixon in first hearing on Ferguson decision making

   

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers gathered to conduct their first meeting on Gov. Jay Nixon’s handling of the months of unrest in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown in a hearing that quickly reveled a chaotic decision-making process and entirely broken lines of communication between first responders and elected officials.

Lawmakers took issue with Nixon’s decision making that night after it became clear that the Missouri National Guard was not deployed into Ferguson on the night of Nov. 24 — when a grand jury decided not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s shooting — until after 2am, well after several business were either burned down or heavily looted. Lawmakers have blamed Nixon for the destruction, suggesting that marching National Guard troops into Ferguson may have quelled the violence.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles painted a picture of a local official scrambling to get Nixon to deploy the Guard and never succeeding. Knowles said that after he personally failed to connect with Nixon or his staff on Nov. 24, he contacted several prominent state Democrats to reach out to Nixon and plead for the deployment of the Guard. He said that he reached out to Attorney General Chris Koster, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, and State Treasurer Clint Zwiefel. He claimed all three attempted to contact Nixon and were unsuccessful. Knowles told the committee that, in fact, he’s had no contact with Nixon or his staff since early September of 2014.

“I was told that the National Guard would be staged nearby, but about two weeks prior to the grand jury decision, I was told that the National Guard would be available to be deployed in short order if things got out of hand,” Knowles said. “We found out later [on the 24th] that they were at Lambert [Airport] and not prepared, staged and ready to go.”

Lawmakers were plenty critical of the series of events as Knowles described them.

“I can’t comprehend why you, the duly elected Mayor of Ferguson, was not included in some of this decision making,” Rep. Kathie Conway said.

“Are you aware of any conversations about a course correction that evening?” Sen. Schmitt said. “Was there a conversation about changing the plan to not let one of our communities burn and the dreams of those business owners burn with it?”

Knowles replied that while he continued to request for National Guard assistance, he was not aware of conversations between law enforcement leaders about deploying the Guard.

Knowles laid out a laundry list of complaints about the organization of law enforcement in Ferguson. Apart from having no communication with Nixon for months, Knowles said he was not consulted on the implementation of the infamous “5-second rule”  — which prohibited Ferguson protestors from remaining in one place for more than five seconds and which courts later ruled unconstitutional. Knowles also said he learned of the “no fly zone” over Ferguson by reading the newspaper, and that he was not consulted or warned about the implementation of a curfew.

Nixon said earlier in the day when announcing new command at the Missouri Highway Patrol that local police were largely tasked with crowd control, indicating that he never intended for the National Guard to be the vanguard of Ferguson security, and that using National Guard soldiers was not ideal, given that they were “trained to kill.”

Greg Brown, Chief of the Eureka Fire District, and Matt LaVancy, Assistant Chief of Pattonville Fire District, both testified to the committee that they had originally been assured that they would have the protection of local law enforcement when putting out protest-related fires. The two laid out their own list of problems from that night.

“I watched much of this unfold on television like a lot of you in the Unified Command Center,” Brown said, saying he wasn’t able to deploy firefighters for lack of promised “force protection.”

Firefighters in Ferguson repeatedly were forced away from fires after looters began firing guns in the vicinity. According to Brown, multiple requests were made to deploy the National Guard to protect the firefighters. No such deployment took place and, ultimately, firefighters were forced to “drop hoses” and leave.

“It goes against everything we’ve trained for,” LaVancy said of abandoning an active blaze.

Brown told committee members that, as a direct result of the events in Ferguson, firefighters in certain parts of North County will don body armor under their gear when responding to certain calls, something he said he’d “never imagined.”

LaVancy told the committee that, at one point, firefighters retreated from Sam’s Meat Market in Ferguson due to danger to their lives. LaVancy said firefighters could see a man trapped inside the building when they were forced to leave, but were unable to remain behind and help.

“I think we’re all floored by that,” said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who chairs the committee.

Nixon did not immediately respond to requests for comments on accusations made at the hearing.

The Joint Committee on Government Accountability will likely meet several times on this issue, Schaefer said. Schaefer said the goal was to determine why plans were changed with relation to the location of the National Guard, but any formal action the committee may take remains uncertain.