Police charged a young African-American man on Sunday in connection with the shooting in Ferguson last week that wounded two police officers and rekindled tension in the racially troubled Missouri city.
Jeffrey Williams, 20, is charged with first-degree assault, armed criminal action and shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle causing injury, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch told reporters, after an intense four-day manhunt.
“It’s possible at this point that he was firing shots at someone other than the police, but struck the police officers,” McCulloch said, adding that Williams had acknowledged firing gunshots and that the investigation was ongoing.
Ferguson has been in the global spotlight since a white policeman fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August last year, igniting sometimes violent protests in major American cities and prompting an impassioned debate about policing and race relations.
Wednesday night’s gunfire erupted just hours after Ferguson’s police chief resigned in response to a Justice Department report that alleged systemic racial bias in the city’s overwhelmingly white police force, in a suburb of 21,000 that is two-thirds black.
McCulloch said Williams had participated in some of the demonstrations demanding justice that have roiled Ferguson almost nightly since Brown’s killing — a claim disputed by protest organizers.
After news filtered through of Williams’ arrest, about 100 people gathered outside the police station in support of police and Mayor James Knowles, who is under growing pressure to resign. Pro-police demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson police station in Ferguson, Missouri. (Getty Images/AFP)
Facing them were a handful of African-American protesters, some of whom shouted abuse in the faces of the predominantly white and middle-aged pro-police group.
“Police officers are human beings and most police officers are doing a very good job,” said white Ferguson resident Blake Ashby, who sported a yellow “Ferguson Proud” T-shirt but acknowledged a need for institutional reforms. Protest organizers — including a pastor who knows the Williams family — strongly disputed the assertion that the suspect had taken part in anti-police demonstrations, saying they did not recognize him.
“I’ve never seen his face (at the protests),” said Bishop Derrick Robinson, who visited Williams in his cell in the St. Louis County jail on Sunday.
Robinson told AFP that Williams told him he had shot at a demonstrator who had attempted to rob him, but that he could not identify who that perpetrator was.
The pastor added that Williams showed him bruises on his body, which the detainee claimed had been the result of police beating him when he was taken into custody Saturday.
Meanwhile in Washington, attorney general Eric Holder welcomed news of Williams’ arrest, saying it sent “a clear message that acts of violence against our law enforcement personnel will never be tolerated.”