FERGUSON, Missouri — A tense Ferguson is awaiting to hear whether a St. Louis County grand jury believes Officer Darren Wilson should stand trial in the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
The grand jury hearing evidence plans to meet Friday for what might be its final session.
A decision on whether to charge Wilson could come the same day, law enforcement officials briefed on the plans said.
Jurors have until January to wrap up their work, but the prosecutor’s office has said a decision could come this month.
Ferguson became a flashpoint for racial tension after the teen’s shooting; Brown, 18, was black, the officer is white.
Street demonstrations and violence erupted in the days and weeks after the August 9 shooting, and heavily armed police came face to face with angry protesters demanding justice.
Some predict that will be the case again when the grand jury’s decision is announced.
Along West Florissant Avenue, the ground zero of violent protests, businesses put back the plywood boards they had taken down from their windows and doors.
Wednesday evening, police arrested five protesters who refused to get out of the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department, according to a statement from St. Louis County Police Department spokesman Brian Schellman.
County police warned the protesters they would be arrested if they didn’t get out of the roadway, the statement said.
“A short time later, several additional folks arrived on-scene and shut down the street by lying in the middle of the roadway. Five arrests were made. By midnight, the crowd had dwindled significantly,” the statement added.
None of those arrested was from Ferguson. Three were from elsewhere in Missouri, one was from Wisconsin and one was from the Chicago area. Three face charges of refusal to disperse and unlawful assembly, and one faces charges of refusal to disperse and failure to move a vehicle obstructing traffic. The fifth was arrested as a fugitive of St. Louis city, the statement said.
What happens next?
If a grand jury decision does come Friday, prosecutors are expected to provide law enforcement with 48 hours’ notice before making a public announcement, possibly on Sunday.
The current plans could still change and prosecutors could shift the planned grand jury session, the law enforcement officials said.
Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has said he plans to make public all evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury, but there is growing concern on how to deal with identities of people who have testified, the sources say.
There are concerns some witnesses could be put at risk once their testimony and identities become public, law enforcement officials said.
In some cases, witnesses might have testified differently under oath, providing different accounts than the ones they gave in media interviews, the official explained. Others may have provided testimony that may be interpreted as helpful to the officer’s account of the shooting.
The prosecutor’s office said it hasn’t decided whether to redact names of witnesses.
‘Three months to prepare’
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson has said his officers are ready for whatever happens.
“We’ve had three months to prepare. … Acts of violence will not be tolerated,” he said. “Our intelligence is good. Our tactics are good. We can protect lawful people and at the same time arrest criminals.”
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay wrote the city’s aldermen to explain that 400 National Guard troops would be requested for the city.
They will be placed with police officers at 45 locations around the city to prevent violence and property destruction.
The city’s police will wear normal uniforms, as “we do not want to appear to militarize our response to the demonstrations and want to do everything we can to de-escalate,” the mayor wrote, adding that police may don riot gear if public safety demands it.
“If our officers put on their personal protective gear, it is not to intimidate peaceful protesters. It is for the sole purpose of keeping everyone safe,” he wrote.
Area school superintendents wrote a letter to city officials and authorities requesting that they announce the grand jury’s decision on an evening or weekend so it doesn’t affect about 20,000 students traveling back and forth to schools.
Many parents received notice to fetch their children from school if the decision comes out during school hours.
A group of community members has asked for 48 hours’ notice before the ruling is made public. It also released 19 “Rules of Engagement” that touch on major points of contention between protesters and police.
The group wants assurances that neither police nor the government will interfere with the flow of information, as well as a guarantee that police won’t use rubber bullets, armored vehicles, rifles or tear gas. The group also requested that officers wear attire “minimally required for their safety” and that “specialized riot gear be avoided except as a last resort.”
Brown’s shooting also touched a national nerve, with protests decrying racism and police brutality taking place around the country since his death.
The Ferguson National Response Network expects that reaction to the grand jury ruling will not be limited to the St. Louis area. It has set up a Tumblr account advertising almost 100 “planned responses” to the ruling. They will take place from West Palm Beach, Florida, to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Federal and state law enforcement agencies in several cities around the nation have issued alerts to their officers to prepare for possible demonstrations over the weekend tied to the possible grand jury decision, according to federal and state law enforcement sources.
The Federal Protective Service, which is in charge of security for federal buildings around the nation, is also preparing for possible protests at major federal facilities. The alert extends beyond the St. Louis region where FPS has boosted personnel.
The FBI has also previously warned state and local law enforcement agencies about potential protests.