The spokesman for the Ferguson, Missouri, police department is on unpaid leave and facing disciplinary action after reportedly describing the memorial honoring Michael Brown as a “pile of trash” in an interview with The Washington Post, the city has announced.
The newspaper quoted Officer Timothy Zoll after the memorial — flowers, stuffed animals and other items in the street near where Brown was killed in a police shooting — was destroyed on Christmas.
“I don’t know that a crime has occurred,” the newspaper quoted him as saying Friday. “But a pile of trash in the middle of the street? The Washington Post is making a call over this?”
St. Louis radio station KMOX later reported that Zoll told its reporter he had been misquoted and actually said that the memorial might have been destroyed by a motorist unfamiliar with the area who had mistaken it for a pile of trash.
But in its Saturday night statement, the city said “the officer admitted to Department investigators that he did in fact make the remarks attributed to him, and that he misled his superiors when asked about the contents of the interview.”
It’s relatively unusual for government officials to comment on employee disciplinary issues, but anything involving the Michael Brown case is far from routine.
Brown died August 9 after being shot by Officer Darren Wilson in a brief encounter that provoked protests across the nation before and after a grand jury declined to bring charges in the case.
The shooting sharply divided Americans between those who sided with Wilson and other police officers as heroes patrolling dangerous streets, and those who argued too many officers bring an overbearing posture and quick-to-shoot mindset to largely African-American communities.
Nowhere has that tension been greater than Ferguson, where the largely white police force has faced harsh criticism over poor relations with the city’s predominantly black population.
City officials have pledged to improve that relationship, and took pains to note police Chief Thomas Jackson kept investigating the statement even after Zoll initially denied making it.
“The City of Ferguson wants to emphasize that negative remarks about the Michael Brown memorial do not reflect the feelings of the Ferguson Police Department and are in direct contradiction to the efforts of City officials to relocate the memorial to a more secure location,” the city said in its statement.
In September, the memorial burned in what police said appeared to be an accident caused by burning candles, but which also raised suspicions in the area.