Accountability Hearing Reveals Chaos, Miscommunication During Ferguson Unrest
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Accountability Hearing Reveals Chaos, Miscommunication During Ferguson Unrest

Date: February 11, 2015
By: Jill Ornitz
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Stories of chaos and miscommunication from fire fighters and local officials shocked legislators at the first Government Accountability Hearing into the unrest in Ferguson.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles testified he was unaware of crucial details regarding Gov. Jay Nixon's response to Ferguson, including that a curfew for Ferguson had been instated without the input of local officials, what the chain of command was among law enforcement and that the city had been labeled a "no-fly zone" as a result of the unrest.

Knowles told the committee the last time he had heard from Nixon's office was in September 2014. He said he had to contact "everyone in [his] Rolodex" to tried to reach Nixon's office during the unrest following the grand jury decision. That "Rolodex" included Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster and State Treasurer Clint Zweifel.

Knowles said both Officer Darren Wilson and former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson were encouraged to resign before the grand jury released its decision. He told the committee that people needed to "see someone sacrificed" to mitigate the building anger.

 Knowles said on a personal level it was "surreal to see something happen on the streets of my hometown," as he watched police tear gas protesters.

He also told the committee there were areas of Ferguson the city's own police department were not allowed to patrol. Knowles also told the committee he did not know who told the Missouri National Guard to stand down when looting began in Ferguson on Aug. 10, 2014.

Knowles was not the only public official who was kept in the dark about the response to the grand jury's decision. 

Eureka Fire Chief Greg Brown and St. Louis County Chief of Special Operations Matt LaVanchy told the committee firefighters were shot at during the unrest and, as a result, were told to stand down even though residents needed their help. LaVanchy told the committee fire fighters had the resources to help contain the unrest in Ferguson, but they did not have the necessary protection.

"We saw the town of Ferguson burning down," LaVanchy told the committee.

Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, the chair of the committee, told the fire fighters that their testimony was shocking.

"I think we're floored at the concept that you were forced to [leave a fire]," Schaefer said.

LaVanchy told the committee that he had to follow orders and leave a man trapped inside Sam's Meat Market in Ferguson, which was destroyed in a fire.

"He was banging on the window begging for somebody to help him get out of the building that was on fire," LaVanchy said. "And we had to leave him at that point."

LaVanchy said by the time firefighters were allowed to enter some of the most badly affected areas of Ferguson, the buildings were not salvagable.

Brown told the committee that he saw an increase in fire fighters' access to body armor since firefighers had been shot at previously.

"I never thought in my career...we'd be teaching people in North County how to wear body armor," Brown said.

Several legislators asked Knowles questions about the chain of command among law enforcement officials in Ferguson.

He told the committee that he could not answer those questions because he was not informed about those conversations. Schaefer told committee members there would probably be a need for additional hearings featuring testimony from law enforcement and the Missouri National Guard to better understand what happened.

When asked if Nixon could take credit for the fact that no firefighter was killed in Ferguson, Schaefer told reporters, "I think it's sheer luck."

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