Missouri Highway Patrol Takes Command in Ferguson
Missouri state troopers took over security in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, today and the commander of the state officers joined protesters in the evening as they marched again to demonstrate against the police shooting of an unarmed teenager.
Officials hope that the change in policing and a softer response from the cops will avoid yet another night of clashes between cops and protesters.
Capt. Ron Johnson, the commander of the Missouri State Highway Patrol units who have taken charged of Ferguson's policing, was in the forefront of marchers this evening. At least one woman hugged the captain, according to the Associated Press. That was a sharp contrast to recent nights when marchers were confronted by police with riot shields, smoke grenades and rubber bullets.
Earlier in the day, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said that Johnson would now be in charge of policing in Ferguson, which has been roiled by angry protests and heavy handed police response since the Saturday death of Michael Brown, 18, by a Ferguson police officer.
"Immediate security will be directed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol," Nixon said today.
He added that the name of the officer accused of fatally shooting Brown should be released and that local officials have the "methods and abilities to do that." Ferguson's police chief has withheld the name, citing threats to his safety.
"I would hope that the appropriate release of that name, with the security around it if necessary ... be done as expeditiously as possible," Nixon said.
The governor said the streets of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, have "looked like a war zone and that's not acceptable. ... Literally, the eyes of the nation are upon us."
Clashes between protesters and police continued for a fifth night Wednesday, with reports of Molotov cocktails, tear gas and rubber bullets being used.
Before the shift to state troopers was announced, President Obama, as well as state and federal leaders, called for changes in how police deal with protesters in Ferguson.
"I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson," Obama said at a news conference. "There is never excuse for violence against the police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights."
Other leaders also called for what Nixon dubbed "a different tone."
“We need to de-militarize this situation," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said today in a written statement. "This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution. I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right. Today is going to be a new start, we can and need to do better.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described some of the changes the Department of Justice deployed in Ferguson today to calm tensions.
“At my direction, the department is offering ... technical assistance to local authorities in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force," Holder said in a written statement. "The local authorities in Missouri have accepted this offer of assistance as of this afternoon.
“Department officials from the Community Relations Service are also on the ground in Missouri to help convene law enforcement officials and civic and faith leaders to plot out steps to reduce tensions in the community,” Holder added.
Nixon, a Democrat, had hinted earlier in the day to a group in a church about forthcoming "operational shifts" to allow greater tolerance for protest in an effort to restore calm.
"We also need to allow folks who want to express their energy in an appropriate way that absolute right to do that, because we will not get the healing that we all need if the only response from the public is, 'Y'all just be quiet,'" Nixon said. "There is a certain level of emotion that needs to be expressed in order for us to reach a higher plane."
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said today that there have been some minor injuries during recent protests, including a police officer who was hit with a brick, but he added, "Right now, I'm at least happy that nobody's gotten seriously injured."
He confirmed this morning that there will be discussions throughout the day about changes to police protocols during the rest of the protests.
"The tactical units will be out there if firebombs start getting thrown, property is being destroyed, shots are being fired. We have to respond to deadly force," Jackson said.
Today, New Black Panther members held a march in the St. Louis suburb, and other protests were expected.
The FBI had issued a warning to police officers that a Black Panther leader was trying to incite violence against law enforcement in Ferguson, the bureau confirmed to ABC News.
The FBI warned about the presence in the area of Chawn Kweli, who it identified as the chief of staff of the New Black Panther Party, Cheryl Mimura, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis FBI field office, told ABC News. The FBI alert was not publicly released but was circulated among law enforcement groups as an officer safety warning.
Obama today also spoke out against the arrests of two reporters on the job in Ferguson Wednesday night.
"Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs," the president said.
Obama first addressed the issue on Tuesday when he released a statement saying that Department of Justice was investigating Brown's death alongside local officials.
"I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding," he said as he took time off from a vacation in Martha's Vineyard. "We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve."
Today, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, also called for calm as the investigation proceeds.
“It's important to remember that this tragedy began when a young man lost his life," he said, "and I support local and federal officials in their efforts to conduct open, transparent, and parallel investigations into what happened here. Michael Brown's memory, his family, and his community are not well-served by more violence.”