Tensions flared again in St. Louis early Wednesday after news of another shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer spread in the metropolitan area, which has been the site of protests since the August police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Tuesday night’s shooting in Berkeley — which sits due west of Ferguson, Mo., about five miles from where Brown was killed — left dead a man identified by authorities as Antonio Martin, 18, of St. Louis. Hundreds of people soon gathered at the scene, a gas station parking lot, and four were arrested and charged with assaulting police officers.
But while many St. Louis-area community leaders rushed to Berkeley demanding answers, several local black elected officials rejected comparisons with the death of Brown and other recent police killings of unarmed black people, such as Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by a New York police officer.
Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins (D) defended the officer involved in Tuesday’s shooting and said it was probably justified, citing surveillance video that appeared to show Martin pointing a gun at the officer. Police said the officer, who has not been named, fired back in fear for his life.
“You couldn’t even compare this with Ferguson or the Garner case in New York,” Hoskins said at a news conference. “The video shows the deceased pointed a gun that has been recovered.” The mayor stressed that unlike Ferguson, Berkeley has elected civic leaders and hired a police force largely reflective of the city’s majority black population.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D), whose districts include Ferguson and Berkeley, criticized protest leaders for what she called a “rush to judgment.’’
“Different narrative, completely different narrative,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “This kid had a gun, and obviously it is an illegal gun. . . . The police officer was justified.”
According to St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, the Berkeley officer was responding to a call about a larceny when he encountered two men in the parking lot of a gas station. As the officer spoke with one of the men, the other walked several steps away and produced a weapon that he pointed at the officer, Belmar said.
Fearing for his life, the officer then drew his weapon and stepped backward, firing three shots — one of which struck the suspect, police said.
Police said they do not believe that the suspect fired his weapon.
It remained unclear Wednesday if Martin’s death would inspire another round of the protests that have erupted in the St. Louis area and across the country since Brown’s death.
The victim’s mother, Toni Martin, told reporters at the scene that her son had not been carrying a gun and was walking to visit his girlfriend at the time of the shooting. “This doesn’t make any sense for them to kill my son like this,” she later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
And the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou — who has been heavily involved in the demonstrations since Brown’s death in August — remained critical of police.
“As Christmas Eve dawns, another family mourns a child,” Sekou said.
Although police have released Martin’s identity, authorities have not released the name of the officer involved in the shooting.
The officer’s lawyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the officer, a six-year department veteran, is “shaken” by the shooting and has not come forward publicly in part because of fear. “It doesn’t do anything but subject him to threats and puts him and his family in harm,” said the lawyer, Brian Milliken, who also would not reveal the officer’s name.
Milliken, a former St. Louis police officer himself, said the officer involved in the shooting had encountered two men at a gas station. “The other guy was doing the talking, and as the cop starts talking, the suspect starts walking away again,” Milliken said. “At that point, the cop says, ‘Hey, come back here,’ and he turns around, pulls a gun from his left pant pocket.”
“He’s trying to process all of this, and the suspect raises it, points it at him,’’ Milliken said. “The cop pulls his weapon and starts backpedaling and fired three or four shots. It happened that quickly. He doesn’t understand why the suspect’s gun didn’t fire.”
Milliken did not return telephone calls from The Washington Post on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, orange and white traffic cones blocked the entrances to the Mobile gas station where Martin was shot. About eight people stood on the sidewalk, huddled in the cold next to a small memorial for Martin.
The mourners challenged the police account that Martin had a gun, with some saying the video footage was hazy. Chris Henry, 27, said he hates the idea of his 9-month-old daughter having to grow up in a world where he may have to tell her that police are not always there to protect.
“When I see an officer, I don’t feel safe, I feel threatened,” said Henry, who works as a cook.
At a news conference Wednesday, Belmar played surveillance video from the gas station, which appeared to depict a verbal confrontation between an officer and several people. The blurry video, shot from a distance, contains no audio and ends when it appears that one of the men raises his arm at the officer.
Belmar stressed that the shooting was a tragedy.
“There are no winners here. There are nothing but losers,’’ Belmar said.
Marcia Davis in St. Louis contributed to this story.