FERGUSON, Mo. — After two weeks of violent protests that have rocked this St. Louis suburb of 21,000, the police tasked with keeping the peace say they've made mistakes and are working to rebuild the trust of the community.
Critics of the police response to protests over the death of Michael Brown have targeted the St. Louis County Police Department's Tactical Operations Unit — a group of police officers who insist they just want to keep the peace and protect people from a small group of criminals. Now, the embattled department is desperate to tell its story and show the public its point of view.
Thursday night, USA TODAY saw firsthand how the officers patrolled another night on Ferguson's restless streets. The officers carried bulletproof vests, large rifles, plastic handcuffs and gas masks. About 15 officers rode in the "BEAR," a 25,580-pound armored truck that the department bought in December 2001 for $480,000.
While the night remained calm without any violence, officers shared stories about fear and missed opportunities to communicate with residents, and they defended their tactics.
"We are doing everything we can to give everyone an opportunity to have their right to peaceful protest," said Lt. Col. Michael Dierkes, commanding officer of St. Louis County Police's special operations division. "We aren't going to take any action unless something goes wrong."
And for the most part, nothing went wrong. At about 7:30 p.m. the Tactical Operations Unit drove about two miles from the police's command post at a local shopping center to a car wash parking lot, across the street from QuikTrip. The convenience store was burned down soon after Brown's death and has become ground zero for protesting.
It's also the place that Patrolman Jeremy Romo, the driver of the BEAR Thursday, thinks of as a hot spot for violence.
Ashe pulled into the car wash parking lot, Romo pointed to the corner of West Florissant and Northwinds Estates Drive. "That's the corner where we get shot at the most," he said.
Meanwhile, the temperature in the BEAR, which can hold 16 people, rose quickly during the five-minute drive, causing already hot officers to become drenched in sweat. Another vehicle, the BearCat, which holds 10 people, followed closely behind. Officers in the tactical operations unit carried guns, handcuffs, radios, binoculars and a number of other tools.
Critics have said the equipment being used by these officers makes Ferguson look like a war zone. But, Patrolman Matthew Caravella, who has deployed to Iraq with the Army three times, said the two situations shouldn't be compared.
"Yes, it gets scary," said Caravella, 30, who has been with the St. Louis County Police for five years. "We do get shot at here. But we do everything we can to keep everybody safe, which is unlike in the military where we had different objectives."
In Iraq, he was supposed to capture and eliminate enemies, but in Ferguson he is tasked with catching criminals and keeping people safe.
Officers must also learn to de-escalate situations through communication, said Patrolman Jason Kapayou. He admitted that in the first few days of the protests, his department failed to do that well. Police should have explained their tactics to clergy members, community leaders and protesters from the very beginning, Kapayou, 43, said.
"We act upon our vantage point just like protesters act on theirs," he said. "We should have let the folks who were trying to help us know if A,B, and C happens, then D is going to occur on our end."
However, now he says officers are taking steps in the right direction.
"Things have gone a lot more smoothly for us with the press riding with us because at least we can tell our side of it while we are acting on it," Kapayou said.
The change Kapayou described comes after uproar over the way St. Louis County Police handled protesters. The issue came to a head last week when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would be taking control of security in Ferguson. That change meant the Tactical Operations Unit would be overseen by Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol.
"What's gone on here over the last few days is not what Missouri is about," Nixon said. "It's not what Ferguson is about. This is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families, go to church. But lately it's looked a little bit more like a war zone and that's unacceptable."
Critics have not only targeted police tactics but the lack of diversity among police. Alim Poindexter, a black St. Louis County police officer, weighed in on the issue of race and the lack of diversity among officers.
"Everything around here is based around race," Poindexter, 34, a nine-year veteran of the department, said. "You can't let that get to you. I think some of the black officers are pointed out even more by the protesters because we are all supposed to be on the same side. So it's hard. It's tough."
His goal, he added, is to "come to work everyday to make sure these guys can go home at night. That's what is most important to me."
Thursday, that goal was not hard to reach. Instead of dodging bullets and clashing with protesters, officers largely stood, passing the time with video games and jokes. At times, officers would urge people standing on the sidewalks, some snapping photos, to keep walking. Five people were arrested for failure to disperse.
At about midnight Friday — four and half hours after they began — officers called it a night.
Dierkes is happy that things are calmer, but will not put his guard down. Instead, the officers of the Tactical Operations Unit remain ready to step in and to protect lives and property, he said.
"I am hoping for the best and prepared for the worst," Dierkes said. "I don't know how people will react in the next couple of days with the wake and the funeral."