JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The mayor of Ferguson said Wednesday that he had tried in vain to urge Gov. Jay Nixon to deploy the National Guard in his town as people burned and looted buildings in protest of a grand jury's decision in the Michael Brown case.
Mayor James Knowles III was the lead witness as a Missouri legislative committee began hearing testimony on why the National Guard was not quickly deployed in Ferguson on Nov. 24, when grand jurors opted not to charge officer Darren Wilson, who is white, for fatally shooting the black 18-year-old.
Nixon declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury decision and had said the National Guard would be available to help local authorities "protect life and property" in case protests turned violent, as they did after Brown was shot Aug. 9
Knowles said he originally was told by St. Louis County police that the Guard would be available to protect the Ferguson police and fire departments and City Hall when the grand jury's decision was announced. But Knowles said the county police chief later told him the Guard would not be there, because of a decision by the governor.
When protesters began destroying property on Nov. 24, Knowles said he tried unsuccessfully to call two Nixon staff members. He said he then reached out to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel for help in urging the governor to send in the National Guard. Knowles said it was his understanding that they also were unsuccessful.
The Guard eventually was sent into Ferguson early on Nov. 25, but by then most of the damage had already been done.
Nixon, speaking to reporters earlier Wednesday, said the plans called for state and local police to provide security in Ferguson, with the Guard stationed at the local command post and elsewhere in the St. Louis region. Nixon noted that there were no deaths in the riots that night, although numerous businesses were burned and looted.
"I believe that was the right plan," Nixon said. "Unfortunately, as I've said before, there was looting and some property destruction at night. But ... it's important we put lives before buildings."
Knowles said he believes that if the Guard had been used in front of Ferguson's municipal buildings, more police might have been available for security elsewhere in town.
"Those officers could have been — should have been — protecting those neighborhoods and businesses, as opposed to standing guard out in front of the police and fire department, where the National Guard could have been," Knowles told lawmakers.
Two firefighting officials told lawmakers that they had been assured in advance that the National Guard would protect their crews responding to fires. But when the calls actually came in, they were told the Guard was not available and instead were accompanied by police.
Those police and firefighters came under gunfire and were forced to retreat, leaving behind hoses and — in at least one case — a man who was inside a burning building, said Matt LaVanchy, assistant Pattonville fire chief.
"I firmly believe that had the National Guard been there, to at least provide protection ... you wouldn't have seen the mobs of non-peaceful protesters, or the people who were really wanting to cause damage to that community," LaVanchy said.
Nixon said his administration will cooperate with legislators conducting the hearings.
In the weeks before the grand jury decision, some top elected officials, including McCaskill and Koster, had tried unsuccessfully to get Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson to resign.
On Wednesday, some senators asked Knowles if he was ever told that the National Guard was withheld from Ferguson as retribution for Jackson not stepping down. Knowles said he was not, adding that he hadn't spoken with Nixon since early September.
Associated Press reporter Summer Ballentine contributed to this report. Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb