(CNN) — Two police officers standing guard outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police station were shot early Thursday in what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called an “ambush,” spurring a manhunt for those responsible for targeting the line of officers.
“We could have buried two police officers,” Belmar told reporters. “… I feel very confident that whoever did this … came there for whatever nefarious reason that it was.”
The shots rang out shortly after midnight, at the end of a protest against the maligned Ferguson Police Department. That department has been under fire since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, shot and killed black teen Michael Brown in August, and more recently since a scathing Justice Department report came out documenting a pattern of racial discrimination.
While the demonstrators’ focus was the Ferguson department, neither of the wounded officers is from that St. Louis suburb.
One is from nearby Webster Groves. The officer — a 32-year-old with seven years experience — was shot at the high point of his cheek, just under his right eye, Belmar said. The bullet that hit him was still lodged behind his ear as of late Thursday morning.
The other wounded officer was hit in the shoulder and the bullet came out the middle of his back, Belmar said. He is a 41-year-old from St. Louis County Police who has been in law enforcement for the past 14 years.
Both men were treated and released from St. Louis’ Barnes Jewish Hospital, according to a Thursday morning post on the St. Louis County Police’s Facebook page.
The officers were standing next to each other when they were struck, Belmar said.
3 questioned by investigators
Authorities haven’t indicated they know who shot the officers, though Belmar did say “several people … have been very forthright with” investigators. Police have also recovered shell casings that may be tied to the shooting.
Heavily armed officers Thursday morning converged on one Ferguson home as part of the investigation, St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said. Video from CNN affiliate KMOV showed three of them trying to pry a hole in the roof, while others went through the front door of the one-story residence.
By late morning, when the operation was over, two men and one woman were being questioned by police, according to Shawn McGuire, another police spokesman. McGuire said that, at that point, no one was officially in custody in the case.
It’s not known what connection, if any, the shooter or shooters had to Wednesday night’s protest.
Still, Belmar noted this isn’t the first time gunshots have rung out in and around demonstration sites since the protests began. It is the first time, though, that an officer has been hit.
“I think it’s a miracle that we haven’t had any instances similar to this over the summer and fall, (given) the amount of gunfire,” said the chief.
‘Muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away’
At its peak, some 150 protesters congregated Wednesday night in front of the Ferguson police station, Belmar said. That number had fallen by about half, with the chants over, when gunfire erupted.
The shots came from a hill overlooking the station, according to witnesses. Belmar said officers saw “muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away.”
One demonstrator, DeRay McKesson, told CNN he has no “indication that leads me to believe that … a protester … did it,” saying he and fellow demonstrators believe in nonviolence.
Yet Belmar believes someone targeted the police, who have braved heated criticism for months, for a reason.
“These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers,” he said.
Brown’s parents condemned the shooting as “senseless,” saying such violence against law enforcement “will not be tolerated.”
So did the White House, with a tweet signed with President Barack Obama’s initials offering prayers for the wounded officers and calling “violence against police … unacceptable.”
And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — who visited Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting and unrest that spurred — decried what happened as a “heinous and cowardly (and) repugnant attack.”
“What happened last night was a pure ambush,” Holder said. “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk who wasatrying to sow discord.”
From calm to chaos
For some protesters, Wednesday was a day to celebrate: They’d called for Jackson’s resignation for months, and finally it was happening.
But for others, it was not enough. They demanded more changes, including disbanding the entire police department and the resignation of Mayor James Knowles. The now familiar racial overtones hung over the protests, a result of the fact that Wilson is white while Brown was black, as well as the U.S. Justice Department report that found a pattern of racial discrimination in the Ferguson Police Department.
Some chanted, “Racist cops have got to go.” Others held signs with slogans like “They don’t really care about us!” and “Black lives matter.”
“It was a great group (with) great, great energy,” protester Markus Loehrer said.
Law enforcement personnel from multiple departments around the area stood in front, as they have on many other nights the past few months.
Whatever the demonstrators’ mindset, they turned out in the highest numbers since November, when a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to press any charges against Wilson. Still, the crowd was relatively small compared to the peak of the protests right after Brown’s death.
Those still there just after midnight were starting to leave when gunfire erupted “no less than 100 feet” away from the crowd of protesters, Kayla Reed said. Belmar said authorities believe the shooter used a handgun.
McKesson, who was at the base of the hill where he and others say the bullets came from, heard about four shots total.
Several police gathered around their wounded comrades, while others took cover wherever they could and drew their guns, as seen in photos taken outside the police department by the St. Louis American, a CNN affiliate.
“It was kind of shocking to see this armed phalanx of officers to immediately pull their weapons,” Loehrer said.
Chief: ‘Very dangerous environment’ for police
As much as McKesson and others continue to demand more changes in and around Ferguson, he said that nothing can justify the shooting.
“We don’t advocate violence toward the police, (just as) we don’t advocate violence from the police toward unarmed people,” he told CNN. “We can live in a world where people are not getting killed, whether the police are killing them or people are shooting at the police.”
Loehrer expressed worries the shooting will undercut the protesters’ message against discrimination and violence.
“It’s a shame that somebody had to take advantage of this great group,” he said, “to do something so despicable.”
Jackson’s resignation was the latest fallout from the damning Justice Department report that cited widespread and systemic discrimination against blacks by the Ferguson police and court system.
City Manager John Shaw also resigned after the report, as did two police officers. And the city’s top court clerk was fired for sending racist emails.
The police chief’s resignation will go into effect March 19, Jackson said, to “provide for an orderly transition of command.”
Reed, one of the protesters, suggested that the demonstrations won’t stop just because Jackson is on his way out.
“We aren’t satisfied with this,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not what total justice looks like in Ferguson.”
After announcing his resignation, Jackson said he was encouraged by the report’s conclusion that Ferguson “has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement.”
The outgoing chief added, “We agree that Ferguson can do the tough work to see this through and emerge the best small town it can be.”
CNN’s Joe Sutton, Sara Sidner, Catherine E. Shoichet, Don Lemon and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.
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