A police officer holds his riot gun while demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed concern Thursday about police use of military equipment in Ferguson. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday named a Missouri Highway Patrol captain to oversee security in Ferguson, where protesters have clashed with police officers following the police killing of an unarmed black teenager last weekend.
Nixon named Capt. Ronald Johnson, who is black, to direct security in the racially charged St. Louis suburb, announcing "operational shifts" and a "different tone" for law enforcement that he hopes will lower the intensity of confrontations between demonstrators and police.
The announcement comes after heavy criticism of the police response to days of protests in the aftermath of the shooting on Saturday of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Nixon said the state's highway patrol will direct security for the Ferguson protests, and that the public would "see a different tone" in law enforcement's response to demonstrations.
"Let's not kid ourselves. This has been a difficult zone. While maintaining the peace, but allowing more movement, we are trying to bring in a different tone of the amplitude of the protective force," he said, referring to the Ferguson police force's use of weapons and armoured vehicles.
"The key to this is to get control, let voices be heard, show less force on the front side — but ultimately getting to some of these deeper problems, not only in Missouri, but in America. This has clearly touched a nerve. This feels a little like an old wound that has been hit again."
Earlier on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama appealed for "peace and calm" on the streets.
"I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened," Obama said. "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. He said he had asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the incident.
Police on Thursday defended the use of tear gas and smoke bombs to repel demonstrators after another night of chaos over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
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 Ferguson.
"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 has drawn heavy criticism from many circles. The Rev. Al Sharpton called Thursday 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.
The governor said law enforcement officers had displayed "a fear to hear not just about this action but about how it fits in a much longer and broader context of a deeper march for justice."
Sierra Smith, who lives in the neighbourhood where Brown was shot, told the governor "the police have no respect at all for the community."
Nixon responded that the Bill of Rights gives the people "the right speak truth to power" and "we will work to live out those rights."
The governor has faced increasing criticism over suggestions he has not done enough to calm tensions.
State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal had been particularly critical, accusing Nixon of being missing in action during the crisis. In an interview on MSNBC, she called the governor a "coward."
The police chiefs of Ferguson and St. Louis County said Wednesday that race relations were the top priority in the town. A meeting was scheduled for Thursday between civil rights leaders and police.
'It's a powder keg'
"It's a powder keg," said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson about the current situation, adding that officials are putting together a plan to help facilitate the protests in a peaceful manner.
“We need to get everyone to calm down and try to bring some peace to this. We want everybody to protest, we know they’re going to protest, we want to facilitate their ability to protest because it’s a constitutional right.
"We’re going to hope for the best. We’re changing our tactics.”
But Jackson said the tactical units will be out if firebombs are thrown.
Officers from multiple departments in riot gear have clashed nightly with protesters, with police sometimes aiming weapons at them from armoured trucks.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed concern Thursday about police use of military equipment in Ferguson.
Jackson defended police action, even though calling for a change in tactics.
"The whole picture is being painted sideways from what is happening," he said. "It is not military. It is tactical operations and SWAT teams. That is who is out there, police."
Two reporters said they were detained by police yesterday 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 soon after Brown's shooting with the use of dogs for crowd control — a tactic that for some evoked 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.
ID of shooting officer kept under wraps
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. The site's code of conduct strictly forbids the publication of private and confidential information without permission.
After the suspension, a secondary account announced that the group would not be releasing any more information for now.
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.
Brown's family is asking the Justice Department to oversee a second autopsy.
The St. Louis County medical examiner's office performed an autopsy Sunday. But family attorney Ben Crump said relatives want an independent examination.
Funeral arrangements are on hold until the autopsy can be performed, he said.
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.
The officer involved was injured, with one side of his face swollen, Jackson said.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told reporters that the officer ordered them out of the street, then grabbed his friend's neck and 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.
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