ST. LOUIS — Two years later, the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson remains so politically sensitive that it has been injected into Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign.
At issue is whether Democratic Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is now running for governor, pushed for the ouster of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, before the facts were in. Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens has accused Koster of trying to get Wilson fired soon after the August 2014 shooting.
Two central figures in Ferguson — Mayor James Knowles III and former police chief Tom Jackson — told The Associated Press in separate phone interviews that Koster called for Wilson’s firing or forced resignation in a series of closed-door meetings involving federal, state and St. Louis regional leaders in the weeks after the shooting.
Koster denies it. Wilson’s attorney says Koster was supportive of Wilson’s well-being. And a former Missouri House leader says Koster was actually the voice of reason, urging against a rush to judgment.
At a candidate forum on Sept. 30 in Branson, Greitens said of Koster: “When he showed up at Ferguson, one of the first things that he did was he said, ‘Can we fire Darren Wilson?’ He did this before he knew the facts. He did this because this was politically convenient for him.”
Jackson told the AP that he was the one who told Greitens that Koster was behind the effort to fire Wilson. Jackson said Koster wanted him fired as police chief, too.
“I thought it was outrageous, I thought it was unprofessional, undignified and unethical,” said Jackson, who didn’t attend the meetings but said he was given updates after each one. “I think to get somebody’s head on a platter as a way of solving the problem, rather than following the law, to me just came off as cowardly.”
Knowles, who attended the meetings, said firing Wilson or Jackson before investigations were finished would have been improper.
“It’s absolutely factual that he wanted to appease people before a riot, to get rid of Darren and/or the chief,” Knowles told the AP of Koster.
Koster was unavailable for an interview because of his schedule, his campaign spokesman, David Turner said. But Turner said the assertion that Koster sought Wilson’s firing was absolutely wrong.
“This may be a case where these two individuals’ memories are failing them or they have been affected by personal or political agendas,” Turner said of Jackson and Knowles in a statement. “At no time did he (Koster) call for the firing of Darren Wilson and he made every effort to ensure he was given due process.”
The shooting death of Brown, a black and unarmed 18-year-old, initially set off weeks of sometimes-violent protests. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice launched investigations.
Police and political leaders worried that if Wilson, who is white, was not charged by the grand jury, protests could escalate again. They sought solutions at a series of private meetings, many at an office of Koster’s in downtown St. Louis.
When the grand jury cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in November 2014, violent protests broke out again. Four months later, the Justice Department also declined to prosecute Wilson.
Wilson resigned on his own days after the grand jury decision. Jackson, now 59, retired in March 2015 after the Justice Department’s report that cited racial bias in Ferguson’s criminal justice system.
Turner said that in the weeks leading up to the grand jury decision, Koster and other elected leaders “worked to assemble a series of measures that could calm the unrest, protect officer safety, and protect the safety of the public, as well.” He said options discussed included a “change in leadership” for the Ferguson Police Department and that firing Wilson “was never an element of the proposal.”
John Diehl, a Republican who was Missouri House majority floor leader at the time and attended many of the private meetings, said, “In fact, Koster was saying we shouldn’t rush to judgment on it, we should let the facts come in, and he always expressed concern about Darren Wilson’s long-term well-being.”
Another meeting participant, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, said he doesn’t recall Koster singling out Wilson or making him a “scapegoat” but that “I think we all agreed in law enforcement that Darren Wilson was never going to be a police officer again.”
Wilson’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, was not at the meetings but said Koster was supportive in their conversations.
“Never did Koster suggest anything other than, ‘How’s he doing? How’s he holding up?'” Bruntrager said. “There was never anything like, ‘Can you get him to quit?'”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was at some of the meetings, did not address Koster’s role specifically.
“Everyone had already acknowledged that Officer Wilson was not going to return to the Ferguson Police Department — including Officer Wilson himself,” she said in a statement. “Many were discussing ways to accomplish that goal, and to help ease the unrest in Ferguson, in a way that was fair to Officer Wilson.”
Koster has been endorsed by the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. Kevin Ahlbrand, legislative director for the FOP, said he would be surprised if Koster had tried to force out Wilson.