In the days since a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, five law-enforcement agencies and a team of private medical examiners have been called in to deal with protests and help to investigate the shooting.
A lack of communication and clear chain of command among the law-enforcement agencies has only lead to more confusion. In the aftermath of Brown’s death, one of the biggest remaining questions is just who exactly is in charge. And that hasn’t been an easy one for federal, state, county, and city officials to answer.
The disarray was evident Friday when the Ferguson Police Department released still photos of a man they identified as Brown robbing a convenience store and intimidating the store’s clerk. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson refused to answer questions, leading reporters and protesters to assume that the robbery and the shooting were connected. Just a few hours later, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and the man who was supposed to be in charge of the situation in Ferguson — Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson — told the press they had no idea that the Ferguson police had planned to release the footage. They also didn’t know why they had. Another few hours passed and Ferguson police announced that the robbery depicted in the tape was unrelated to the shooting anyway.
On Sunday, federal and state authorities crossed wires. In consultation with state law enforcement, Nixon called in the state’s National Guard. The guard, which is controlled both by the state and the federal government, arrived Monday morning. But later that day, the White House said it had no idea that Nixon was going to call in those forces.
As things stand on Wednesday, more than a week after the shooting, law enforcement continues to deal with three big issues: Who is going to patrol the streets and keep protests peaceful? Who is going to investigate the shooting? And who will conduct the autopsy?
As you can see below, the division of labor is at best confusing.
For now, the Missouri State Highway Patrol is charged with keeping the peace in Ferguson, assisted by officers from the St. Louis County Police Department. The state National Guard is also on the ground, focused largely on maintaining a command center to provide backup and assistance to Highway Patrol and St. Louis County officers. Meanwhile, members of the Ferguson Police Department have been removed from duty in the areas of West Florissant Avenue, where the majority of the protests are taking place. But they’re still charged with protecting the rest of the city, where unrest continues to bubble.
Both the Justice Department and the St. Louis County Police Department are conducting separate investigations into the shooting. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are charged with Justice’s inquiry, looking in particular at potential civil-rights violations, while the St. Louis County Police Department is working on a broader investigation. Forty FBI agents were in Ferguson this week alongside members of the St. Louis County Police Department canvassing the streets for witnesses.
The Justice Department writ large is also advising the Ferguson Police Department on civil-rights issues, in cooperation with the local chapter of the NAACP, in order to calm racial tensions in the city.
Meanwhile, three autopsies have been conducted on Brown’s body to help in both investigations of the shooting. First, the St. Louis County medical examiner took a look at the body. Those results have not been released, but a source told The Washington Post that a toxicology report conducted during the examination showed that Brown tested positive for marijuana. Brown’s family called in Dr. Michael Baden, a New York City forensic pathologist, and professor Shawn Parcells, a medical investigator from Kansas City, to conduct a second, independent autopsy. Those results were released on Monday in a press conference with the family’s attorney. The Justice Department has also ordered its own autopsy, which was conducted on Monday.
The protests in Ferguson do not appear to be letting up, and the investigation into Brown’s death could drag on as well. Law enforcement has been working for more than a week to calm the city and help it to heal. But with so many agencies — each with its own goals and hierarchies — working to resolve the situation, it’s not always clear who’s responsible for what.