FLORISSANT, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says “operational shifts” are ahead for law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb where a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.
Nixon spoke today at a meeting of clergy and community members to discuss law enforcement’s response to demonstrations over the killing in the town of Ferguson.
The governor told the audience that “you all will see a different tone.”
He did not elaborate on the changes ahead, but they are likely to be explained at a news conference planned for later in the day.
The governor said he was late to the meeting because he had been on the phone with President Obama, who sent “wishes of peace and justice.”
President Obama on today appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets of Ferguson.
“I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened,” Obama said in his first in-person remarks about the tense standoff in the Missouri suburb. “But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family, we are united in common values and that includes the belief in equality under the law, respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protests.”
Obama, speaking from the Massachusetts island where he’s on a two-week vacation, said there was no excuse for excessive force by police in the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. He said he had asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the incident.
Police on today defended the use of tear gas and smoke bombs to repel protesters after another night of chaos in Ferguson.
St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said officers on Wednesday night tossed tear gas to disperse a large crowd of protesters after some threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers. More than 10 people were arrested.
“In talking to these guys, it is scary,” Schellman said of officers on the front lines of the protest. “They hear gunshots going off, and they don’t know where they’re coming from.”
But the police response is drawing criticism from many circles. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton called today for the Justice Department to monitor Ferguson and the way police are handling the crisis.
“Even if we disagree, this climate is not good for anyone and is dangerous for everyone,” Sharpton said in a statement.
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The police chiefs of Ferguson and St. Louis County said Wednesday that race relations were the top priority in the town, where a white police officer fatally shot the black teen. Authorities have vowed to reach across the racial, economic and generational divide in a community in search of answers. A meeting was scheduled for today between civil rights leaders and police.
Officers from multiple departments in riot gear and in military equipment have clashed nightly with protesters, who chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Protesters faced heavily armed police who at times trained weapons on them from armored trucks.
Two reporters said they were detained by police for not clearing out quickly enough from a McDonald’s where they were working, near the protests but away from the more volatile areas. The two, who work for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, were released without any charges. Both say they were assaulted but not seriously hurt.
Among those arrested was St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been chronicling the protests on social media.
“I think the heavy-handed approach by police is escalating the situation and more people are going to get hurt if this keeps up,” French told KMOX Radio.
Residents in Ferguson have complained about the police response that began with the use of dogs for crowd control soon after Brown’s shooting — a tactic that for some invoked the civil rights protests from a half-century ago. The county police force took over, leading both the investigation of Brown’s shooting and the subsequent attempts to keep the peace at the smaller city’s request.
County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his officers have responded with “an incredible amount of restraint” as they’ve had rocks and bottles thrown at them, been shot at and had two dozen patrol vehicles destroyed.
Police had asked people to assemble in “an organized and respectful” manner and disperse before evening.
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 released a name purported to be the officer’s today, but The Associated Press could not immediately verify that the name was correct.
St. Louis County police and the FBI are investigating the shooting. County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said Wednesday that it could be several weeks before the investigation wraps up and authorities decide whether to charge the officer.
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Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson called improving race relations “the top priority right now” but also said he won’t be pressured into publicly identifying the officer despite mounting demands to do so.
“We have the right to know, and the family has the right to know who murdered their son,” said Sahari Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Ferguson legal assistant.
Jackson said he welcomes Justice Department training on racial relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black and all but three of the police force’s 53 officers are white.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon planned to visit Ferguson today, citing the “worsening situation.” He asked community members to be patient and calm while the investigation proceeds and urged law enforcement agencies to “keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press.”
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car.
The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times. In their initial news conference about the shooting, police didn’t specify whether Brown was the person who scuffled with the officer in the car and have refused to clarify their account.
Jackson said Wednesday that the officer involved sustained swelling facial injuries.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told media outlets that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it “ricocheted” back, apparently upsetting the officer.
Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.
Among the protesters critical of the police response has been state Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, a Democrat from nearby University City.
“I just want to know if I’m going to be gassed again, like I was on Monday night?” she asked Jackson at a press conference. “And I was peaceful. And I’m your state senator.”
“I hope not,” he replied.