No suspects have yet been identified in the shooting that left two police officers injured outside the Ferguson police department early on Thursday — but local activists say the assault doesn't represent the nonviolent nature of the movement, and fear that this incident will derail slow progress in restoring trust between community and police.
Two officers were shot at the end of protests outside the department, which has been the scene of widespread protests, unrest, and a crackdown by authorities since an officer killed an unarmed black teenager there last August.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar confirmed that the shooting took place just after midnight local time on Thursday morning. One 32-year-old officer was shot in the face while another 41-year-old officer was struck in the shoulder as they stood in front of the Ferguson Police Department building.
Both officers were released from the hospital on Thursday morning.
At a press conference on Thursday morning, Belmar called the attack an "ambush" and drewcomparisons with the killing of two NYPD officers last December.
"We're lucky, by God's grace, we didn't lose two officers last night," he said. "We could have buried two police officers next week."
The incident occurred during a protest following the announcement that Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson would resign, which came after the release of a Department of Justice (DOJ) report into the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson described widespread racial bias in his department.
No arrests have been made and Belmar gave no details on suspects or leads in the investigation. Officers searched a home four blocks away from the Ferguson Police Department headquarters on Thursday andreportedly questioned — but did not arrest — two men and a woman in connection with the investigation.
While he was careful not to blame the assault on protesters, Belmar said that tense gatherings like last night's are "very difficult" for police to handle, and expressed surprise that protesters would respond angrily to news of Jackson's resignation. Protesters hailed the resignation as a major victory — but they also demanded that the entire Ferguson police department be disbanded.
"I didn't expect the agitation that we saw in the crowd last night," Belmar said. "The responsibility of last night's shooting lies with whoever did the shooting."
Several demonstrators at the scene said that the bullets came from behind the main protest, from "the hill" or Tiffin Avenue opposite the police station. Video uploaded to YouTube claimed to capture the moment the shots were fired.
Protesters and local activists — some of whom heard the bullets fly right over their heads from behind — were also shocked by the shooting. Some questioned the timing and dynamics of the assault, saying "something is off."
"After everything that happened to us over the years and especially the last seven months, it just does not make sense that someone would shoot at cops after we have got these victories," Bassem Masri, a regular presence at the protests, told VICE News. "People have been killed, arrested, assaulted — and someone chose the night the chief resigns to perpetrate violence?"
"This is an outside agitator that wants to undo all the work protesters have put in," he added. "This isn't a coincidence by any means."
That sentiment was echoed by a number of other local organizers and members of the clergy.
"This has the potential of taking our attention off where it needs to remain," Rev. Traci Blackmon told reporters on a phone call on Thursday afternoon, referring to the restoration of trust in police following the scathing findings of the DOJ report. "We're just seeing the possibility of progress."
"I don't know who did this or why," she added. "I am suspicious it was an act intended to derail us from the path we're on now."
A number of local activists on the call talked about the movement being "grounded" in nonviolence.
"Young people who put their lives on the line day after day should be celebrated, not demonized," said Rev. Osagyefo Sekou.
A vigil in support for the officers is planned for tonight.
"I'm saddened," said TefPoe, a local rapper and early organizer of the Ferguson protests. "We don't advocate any form of violence, that's what this whole thing is all about: addressing state violence."
But he and others expressed concern that the shooting might divert attention from the DOJ findings and the violence Ferguson's black residents were also subjected to.
"We can't vilify the people of the community who live here, simply for wanting an accountable police force," he added.
Additional footage shows the aftermath of the shooting. A Twitter user called search4swag monitored the scene.
Police were on guard at the police department building where 60 to 70 protesters had gathered. The demonstrators had begun to disperse, according to Belmar, and several officers had also begun to leave the area when the shots were fired.
Officers attempted to gather witness statements from protesters after the shooting.
"Every single one of those cops was supposed to have their body cams on last night," a protesters tweeted. "Woulda shown exactly where the shot came from."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published Jackson's brief resignation letter: "It is with profound sadness that I am announcing I am stepping down from my position as chief of police for the city of Ferguson, Missouri. My resignation will be effective March 19, 2015, to provide for an orderly transition of command."
Jackson is the sixth public official to resign or be fired in the wake of the damning DOJ report in only a week. While the report cleared Wilson of civil rights breaches, Ferguson's judiciary, and the culture among local police received severe criticism.
"Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue," the report found.
Jackson had denied such an issue, and said during a CBS News interview in February: "There is not a racial problem in the police department." Yet protesters had long called for Jackson's resignation over the police response to the shooting and their approach to the subsequent protests.
Following Thursday's shooting, some protesters said the feared "retaliation" while others worried this would further slow down the difficult process of rebuilding trust between police and local residents.
"I expect there will be a lot of people pointing fingers at each other from both sides of the line, police blaming us while protesters will probably go with the outside agitator narrative," Masri said. "It might get tense or it might help bring people together. It all rests with the police and their reaction to us, it's in their hands."
In a statement, the city of Ferguson, which in the last few days has announced the resignation of a number of top officials, denounced the shooting and said that violence won't be tolerated.
"We have made changes at the highest level of our administration, police, and courts to allow this city to make a fresh start," the statement read. "City leadership is diligently working to make systematic changes necessary to instill confidence in the city, our police, and our courts."
"We can only succeed with your help," the statement added.
Following the shooting, the St. Louis County police department and Missouri State Highway patrol announced they would be in charge of policing future protests in Ferguson.
Additional reporting contributed by VICE News's Scott Mitchell.