Feedback
News
Michael Brown Shooting

Michael Brown Shooting Anniversary: Revisiting 5 of Ferguson’s Key Players

A year after Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the event continues to reverberate through the lives of those who were directly involved — and those who tried to help the community navigate the aftermath.

Here are some of their stories.

Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson
Officer Darren Wilson. St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office via Reuters

Officer Darren Wilson went into hiding immediately following Brown's death, and quit the Ferguson Police Department nearly four months later — just as a grand jury voted not to indict him.

In his resignation letter, Wilson wrote that he hoped his absence from the force would "allow the community to heal."

At the same time, Wilson began to build a family. He married his second wife, Barbara Spradling, a former Ferguson cop who was once Wilson's field training officer. They had a daughter. They moved into a new house surrounded by surveillance cameras on a dead-end street outside St. Louis, according to an August profile in the New Yorker, the first comprehensive account of his life in near-seclusion.

But in other ways, Wilson, 29, remains unable to move past the shooting. He has not held another significant job — police agencies see him as a liability, and a position at a boot store ended with too much attention from reporters, according to the New Yorker article. He rarely goes out in public, and when he does, he tries to remain unrecognizable, sometimes wearing sunglasses and a hat.

In his interviews with the New Yorker, Wilson said he did not believe that Ferguson was a systematically racist town — despite the findings of a U.S. Justice Department report, which he claimed he has not read. He said he thought young people in the predominantly black northern St. Louis suburbs used the country's history of racism as an excuse. He would not discuss about his shooting of Michael Brown, only repeating what he'd told ABC News last November: "I did my job that day."

Dorian Johnson

Image: Dorian Johnson
Dorian Johnson, friend of Michael Brown. NBC News

Dorian Johnson was walking in the street with Michael Brown when the Aug. 9, 2014, confrontation with Wilson unfolded. His account, to authorities and the media, included the claim that Brown had his hands up when he was shot. That spawned a rallying cry at protests and a social media slogan — "Hands up, don't shoot." Johnson's account, however, was later discredited in a Justice Department report.

Johnson, 23, stuck by his story.

But his life since Brown's death has been turbulent. He has been portrayed simultaneously as a key witness and as a liar, as a star of the protest movement and as an irresponsible fame-seeker, as a victim of racism and as a criminal. He has filed a lawsuit against the city, but was also arrested on a St. Louis street.

The unrelenting attention has made it hard for him to keep a job and an apartment and has left him bitter, according to a lengthy interview with The Riverfront Times.

"It does sadden me that it seems like Darren Wilson just fell off the face of the earth," he told the newspaper. "I mean, I can pick my nose and it'll be on the news. Who's to say what Darren Wilson is doing right now?"

Ron Johnson

Image: Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol speaks
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Pool via AP

When authorities saw unrest in Ferguson spinning out of control, they turned to Ron Johnson.

Johnson, 52, a captain in the Missouri State Highway Patrol and a native of the the northern St. Louis suburbs, understood the dueling perspectives of the cops and the protesters. He became a calming presence in the streets, confronting community leaders and taking charge of the police response to public unrest.

He was an instant star.

After the violence ebbed, Johnson returned to his regular job, as commander of the Highway Patrol's Troop C, which includes St. Louis and its suburbs. But he remains a high-profile presence.

He continues to help local authorities deal with other crises, including shootings that involve the police. He speaks to youth groups, churches, law enforcement conferences and advises the state attorney general.

Ebony Magazine included Johnson in its list of America's most influential black people. He served as grand marshal of the nation's oldest African-American parade. He serves on the board of the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation, formed in the aftermath of Brown's death to support efforts to improve racial harmony.

And he has expressed hope that St. Louis will eventually become a model of police-community relationships.

Tom Jackson

Thomas Jackson
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson days after Michael Brown's death. Jeff Roberson / AP

From the first moment of unrest and for several months that followed, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson faced overwhelming pressure to resign.

He was, after all, the face of the force that had killed Michael Brown, and of the militarized response to the violent backlash.

But Jackson, a former St. Louis police officer who'd served at Ferguson's top cop for five years, held fast — even when his attempts to calm tensions instead inflamed them.

The breaking point came in March, when the U.S. Justice Department issued a report that laid bare the local justice system's dysfunction. The report documented how Jackson worked with city officials to increase revenue-generating traffic stops, which disproportionately targeted blacks.

A week after that report appeared, Jackson announced he would leave. "This city needs to move forward without any distractions," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

He left with a severance package of $96,000 and a year of health insurance, the paper reported.

Jackson has since fallen out of the public eye. The Post-Dispatch caught up with him as the anniversary of Brown's death approached. He said that to keep his mind off Ferguson, he had done some private consulting work, flown his plane, and gone for rides on his motorcycle.

"I'm still really down," he told the paper. "I have a lot anger over all of this, and I don't get angry."

Daniel Isom

Missouri Department of Public Safety director Daniel Isom, left, spoke at November news conference on preparations for a grand jury's decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson. Jeff Roberson / AP file

The backlash against Michael Brown's death, and the bias it exposed in the criminal justice system, roiled more than just local authorities. At the time, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon didn't have a single black person in his cabinet, a fact that critics seized on.

Nixon responded by hiring Daniel Isom, a former St. Louis police chief, to head the state Department of Law and Public Safety.

Isom left his comfortable job teaching criminology at the University of MIssouri-St. Louis for the government post.

He didn't last long.

Six months after his hiring, and one month after the state Senate formally confirmed his nomination, Isom abruptly resigned. He issued a statement saying he'd discovered that teaching was his "true passion" and would return to the university.

Isom has never spoken publicly about his change of heart, and did not return messages from NBC News. But a supporter, State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, said she believed Isom clashed with Nixon's office over post-Ferguson reforms. Others suggested that Isom recoiled at having little actual power over the operations of state law enforcement agencies.

Isom remains a member of the Ferguson Commission, whose mission is to find ways to address social economic problems that helped create the conditions that led to public unrest.

He discussed post-Ferguson reforms with St. Louis Public Radio in May. “I think the most important thing that we’ve learned is that policing certainly is a community partnership, that you cannot police a community without a very strong relationship with the community,” he said.