A white police officer’s shooting of an 18-year-old black man at a gas station near Ferguson, Mo., appeared to be justified, officials said Wednesday after some violence broke out at demonstrations overnight.
The shooting took place around 11:15 p.m. CST Tuesday in the St. Louis suburb of Berkeley, population 9,100, and happened a few miles from where a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9, sparking months of protests.
Police said the man, Antonio Martin, pointed a gun at the officer, a six-year veteran, who opened fire and killed Martin. The incident was captured by a gas station surveillance camera, and a 9-millimeter handgun carrying six rounds and a defaced serial number was found at the scene, police said.
In a scene reminiscent of protests in Ferguson and St. Louis, hundreds of residents and demonstrators quickly arrived at the scene, with some throwing bricks and fireworks-like explosives at police, at least two of whom were injured. Berkeley police arrested four people on suspicion of assaulting police officers.
Berkeley’s mayor Wednesday morning was quick to distance the city from the August incident in Ferguson as well as from Ferguson itself, which shares a border with Berkeley.
Both cities are predominantly black St. Louis suburbs, but Berkeley – unlike Ferguson – has a black police chief, a predominantly black police force and a predominantly black city government.
“At this point, our review indicates that the police did not initiate this (incident), like Ferguson,” said Berkeley’s black mayor, Theodore Hoskins, speaking to reporters while flanked by black city officials.
Hoskins said police were responding to a report of shoplifting at the gas station and that he had seen the surveillance video in which the man appears to raise his arm and point a gun at the officer, prompting the officer to fire.
While extending condolences to Martin’s family, Hoskins said the shooting appeared to be justified and that the officer may have “saved his life” by shooting the young man as the officer stumbled and fell down.
A protester at the news conference challenged the mayor over his conciliatory remarks, in a flash of anger that has been heard so commonly in the region since August.
“This cannot happen in Berkeley. It has to stop happening right now,” the man shouted from off-screen at the televised news conference. “A police officer has killed another young black man, and this has to stop, and if it doesn’t stop, this country will remain accountable from this day forward, from sea to shining sea.”
“I understand that, and you sound very intelligent, and let me say this,” Hoskins responded. “Truly you don’t believe that every person or every black that’s killed, it’s because of a white policeman. Do you believe that? Every time?”
Hoskins added, “This is not the same as Ferguson.”
The fresh round of anger and racial friction in suburban St. Louis comes as protests continued in New York City on Tuesday night, despite pleas of New York’s mayor following the assassinations of two NYPD officers.
Police union officials in New York had been angered and protest leaders unsettled by the unprovoked attack on officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who shot the officers and later took his own life, had invoked the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was killed as one NYPD officer applied what appeared to be a chokehold. Grand juries in both cases chose not to indict the officers involved.
The reaction to Tuesday night’s shooting in Berkeley showed that feelings among many St. Louis residents remained raw and that area police had still not earned the benefit of the doubt from demonstrators.
Ferguson resident and activist Tony Rice was among the first onlookers to arrive at the scene Tuesday night and said Martin’s body was uncovered when he arrived. Firefighters eventually covered the body after chants from the growing crowd, Rice told the Los Angeles Times.
Demonstrators shouted angrily at police as Martin’s family arrived at the scene, with Rice shooting video of a woman crying out in agony, “I want to know what happened to my baby! I want to know what happened to my son!”
“This doesn’t make any sense for them to kill my son like this,” Toni Martin-Green later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at her home near the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. “I am trying to be calm.”
Several hundred demonstrators arrived at the scene and in the early morning hours began throwing bricks at police officers and may have also set off fireworks-like devices, according to both Rice and officials with the St. Louis County Police Department, the agency that is handling the shooting investigation.
Rice said one brick broke a window on a police car, and one of the explosives started a small fire in a parking lot, police said.
“That’s pretty disturbing,” St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar said of the explosives, adding that one officer hurt his leg while trying to get away from the device and was still being treated in the emergency room.
Another officer received “facial abrasions” after being hit with a brick, Belmar said, his comments coming during his own news conference early Wednesday.
Berkeley’s mayor credited police for moving in at the scene, telling reporters he feared that the gas station might have been burned down without their protection.
Belmar, like Berkeley’s mayor, extended condolences to Martin’s family and also to the 34-year-old officer involved in the shooting, who was placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation and whose name was not released.
“He will carry the weight of this for the rest of his life and certainly the rest of his career,” Belmar said of the officer. “So there are no winners here, there are nothing but losers.”
An attorney for the officer, Brian Millikan, told the Post-Dispatch that the officer was “shaken” by the incident.
Belmar said Martin had been previously arrested for assaults, armed robbery, armed criminal action and stealing since he turned 17. “He was known to law enforcement,” Belmar said, adding that the defacement of the gun’s serial number indicates that it might be stolen.
Although the officer was equipped with a body camera and a dashboard camera, neither device was activated, Belmar said. The dashboard camera in the car is apparently not activated if the car’s lights are not flashing and the officer apparently forgot to turn on the device at the start of his shift, Belmar said.
Both Belmar and the city’s mayor attributed the officer’s failure to activate the body camera as a result of the newness of the technology and limited training. “We’re not used to it all the time,” Belmar said.
The mayor, Hoskins, said in the future that officers would be better trained and that there would be “severe penalties” for officers who didn’t turn on the devices.
As a result, much of the investigation may hinge on video captured by at least one of the gas station’s surveillance cameras, which shows the officer pulling up at the Mobil station around 11:15 p.m.
The officer, who appears to be holding a flashlight, can be seen in the distance talking to two people. Belmar said that when the officer sees one of the men with a gun, he quickly moves backward, loses his balance, and fires three shots.
“One shot struck the suspect and one shot struck the tire of the police car,” Belmar said, adding that the suspect did not appear to fire any shots.
That single shot appeared to be fatal, though Belmar said he didn’t know where Martin had been hit and that autopsy results were still pending. Berkeley EMS responders said that Martin appeared to be dead when they arrived, Belmar said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Wednesday morning, “The events in Berkeley are a reminder that law enforcement officers have a difficult, and often dangerous, job in protecting themselves and law-abiding citizens.”