Tuesday, January 27, 2015

State troopers in Ferguson replace heavily armed police

Demetrus Washington, with fellow demonstrators, holds a message protesting the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.
Demetrus Washington, with fellow demonstrators, holds a message protesting the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. SCOTT OLSON / Getty
Demetrus Washington, with fellow demonstrators, holds a message protesting the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Gallery: State troopers in Ferguson replace heavily armed police
FERGUSON, Mo. - Federal and state officials unveiled a sweeping response Thursday to violent clashes between police and protesters over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, with Missouri taking over security operations from local police and authorities agreeing to accept Justice Department help in handling protests.

Speaking from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Obama called for national unity following the police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18, in this St. Louis suburb. "Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson," Obama said. "Let's remember that we're all part of one American family."

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. then announced a series of steps his department is taking, including a meeting held Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions and an escalating civil rights probe in which federal investigators have already interviewed witnesses to the shooting.

In unusually blunt remarks, Holder said he was "deeply concerned" about "the deployment of military equipment and vehicles" on Ferguson's streets and that Missouri officials have accepted federal assistance "to conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force."

Even as dozens of protesters continued their campaign near the shooting scene for a fifth day on Thursday, state officials followed the federal lead. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security operations in Ferguson, led by Capt. Ronald Johnson, an African American who grew up in the area. "We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we're in this together," Johnson said.

As a result, the heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts, and the gas masks were gone from the streets Thursday night, and Johnson marched with the crowd, eliciting cheers from the protesters. Johnson vowed to not blockade the streets, to set up a media staging center, and to ensure that residents' rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon.

"I'm not afraid to be in this crowd," Johnson declared.

Obama's remarks were the most visible step in a rapid coalescence among political and community leaders to tamp down the violence, as images of riot police and tear gas provoked a debate that recalled civil rights battles of a half-century ago.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed Thursday - five days after the shooting - to condemn the tactics of the nearly all-white police force in the predominantly African American town.

The reactions were similar across the political spectrum. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) for example, called for authorities to "demilitarize this situation," while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a likely Republican presidential candidate, condemned "the militarization of our law enforcement" in a Time magazine essay.

Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) sent a letter to Holder urging him to investigate whether law-abiding citizens' protected right to peacefully assemble and the right to a free press are being unnecessarily infringed upon.

But on the ground in Ferguson, the support from politicians at all levels was met with skepticism, and it was unclear how much effect it would have.

Eddie Hasan, a St. Louis resident who helped organize a forum Thursday night at a local Baptist church for young people to voice their concerns, called on elected officials to play a greater role in calming tensions. "This forum, this chance for the youth to speak out absolutely should have happened sooner," he said. "Hopefully it helps us get some resolution to the issue."

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who has been active in planning protests and was teargassed Monday, said local and state officials have been woefully absent. "There hasn't been a single white Democrat down here," Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson, said Wednesday before Nixon's visit. "Mark my words, the Republicans might start showing up before they do."

The city and county are also under criticism for refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing threats against that officer and others. The hacker group Anonymous on Thursday released a name purported to be that of the officer, but the Ferguson police chief said later that the name was incorrect.

Twitter quickly suspended the Anonymous account that posted the officer's purported identity and personal information.

CNN, citing a source close to the investigation, said police planned to release the officer's name on Friday.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

Wesley Lowery, Jerry Markon, and Mark Berman Washington Post
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