ST. LOUIS (AP) — The police chief on Thursday unapologetically defended the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old who was killed by two white officers in a confrontation that drew protesters and unrest back to the streets.
Protesters pledged to stand firm. Said the director of a group called the Organization for Black Struggle: “We will not go away.”
Mansur Ball-Bey, who police said had a handgun, was shot as officers raided a home in a violence-plagued part of north St. Louis. Within an hour of Wednesday’s shooting, more than 100 people converged on the scene, taunting officers and decrying the use of deadly force.
A vacant building and at least one car were torched, police said. Officers responded with tear gas and arrested at least nine people on charges of impeding traffic and resisting arrest.
The scene unfolded less than two weeks after violence marred the anniversary of the day Michael Brown was fatally wounded by a white officer in nearby Ferguson. His death launched the national Black Lives Matter movement.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said the crowd-control tactics were justified because officers were being hit with bottles and bricks and protesters refused to clear out of the roadway.
“I’d certainly much rather our officers focused in the neighborhoods, interceding violence before it happens,” Dotson said Thursday, noting that some in the neighborhood implored police to leave them alone.
“It’s kind of ironic that we’re in that neighborhood where police services are most needed, and people are telling us not to do our jobs.”
Activists vowed to continue their efforts.
“We have a right to live in freedom and specifically free from fear,” said Montague Simmons, executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle. “This can’t go unchecked. We’re going to stay in the street. No matter what (police) put forward, we are not going to stop.”
The latest shooting happened while officers were serving a search warrant. They encountered Ball-Bey and another suspect running from the home, police said.
Ball-Bey turned and pointed a handgun at the officers, who shot him, authorities said. He died at the scene.
The handgun found in the dead man’s possession had one round in the chamber and 13 in the magazine, Dotson said.
Some protesters questioned the police claim that the suspect was armed. Distrust of police accounts has been common since Brown’s death.
On the night of the Brown anniversary, 18-year-old Tyrone Harris Jr. was wounded by plainclothes officers in Ferguson after he allegedly first fired at them. His father called that account “a bunch of lies” and insisted his son was unarmed.
Later, police released surveillance video that appeared to show the younger Harris pulling a handgun from his waistband and running in the direction of the officers.
“I understand people’s skepticism,” Dotson said Thursday. “But don’t let social media and innuendo drive what you believe to be true. You have to let the facts speak.”
Mayor Francis Slay pledged an “independent and transparent” investigation of the shooting but stood behind police.
“The police were in this neighborhood doing their job,” Slay said at a meeting with the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, a group of black ministers. The meeting was at a church about a block from the shooting site.
The police chief and mayor said protesters should have their voices heard, but they differentiated between those who gather to protest and others who create mischief.
“We have to be mindful of the fact that there are criminals who were at the protest as cover for their activity,” Slay said.
Joe Steiger, president of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, the city’s police union, said the chief’s decision to pull manpower away from other crime-prone areas to monitor protests risks stretching the city’s already thin police force.
The protests, he added, “seem like they’re never going to end.”
Activists said the police response was unnecessarily “militaristic” and an affront to free-speech rights.
Steiger bristled at the notion that police are the villains and said trouble-makers during protesters are criminals.
“Police don’t start riots. Rioters start riots,” he said.
The scene of Wednesday’s shooting — known as the Fountain Park neighborhood — is a historically high-crime area that has seen an uptick in violence, with 127 confirmed homicides this year. There were 159 homicides in all of 2014 and 120 the year before that.
A 30-year-old man was shot and killed there Monday. Last month, a man was charged with felony child endangerment after his 3-year-old nephew accidentally shot himself in the head after finding a loaded gun under a pillow in a bedroom. A market next to Wednesday’s shooting was riddled with bullets this week and ransacked hours after Ball-Bey’s death. Thieves made off with cellphones, cigarettes, food and medicine.
Fountain Park is also the area near where a 93-year-old veteran who was part of the famous all-black Tuskegee Airmen of World War II was the victim of two crimes within a few minutes Sunday — being robbed and then having his car stolen. The veteran was unhurt, and his car was found Tuesday blocks from where it was taken.
“Right now, you see a police officer and your first instinct is to run,” said Fred Price, 33, who lives near the shooting scene. “They don’t want to get shot by the police.”
Something like this, he said, makes people “want to keep the police out of the neighborhood.”
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