Skip to main Content

A new police approach on unrest eases tensions in Missouri

FERGUSON, Mo. -- President Barack Obama on Thursday called for an end to the violence here, denouncing actions by both the police and protesters. Hours later, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the state highway patrol to take over security from local law enforcement.

Clashes between heavily armed police officers and furious protesters in Ferguson have defined the aftermath of an officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager on Saturday, and the latest moves came as federal and state officials scrambled to quell the growing crisis. Alarm had been rising across the country at images of a mostly white police force, in a predominantly African-American community, aiming military-style weapons at protesters and firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, the highway patrol official appointed by the governor to take over the response, immediately signaled a change in approach. Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the city streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.

On Thursday night, the armored vehicles and police cars were gone, and the atmosphere was celebratory. A street barricaded on previous nights was filled with slow-moving cars blasting their horns. A man played a drum across the street from a convenience store that was looted this week. And there were few signs of police officers, let alone a forceful response.

Kimaly Diouf, co-owner of Rehoboth Pharmacy, said the reason for the difference was simple: "Because they're not tear gassing us tonight."

Johnson, who is African-American and grew up in the area, said: "We're just starting today anew. We're starting a new partnership today. We're going to move forward today, to put yesterday and the day before behind us."

Criticism of the police response, already heavy because officials have refused to name the officer involved in the shooting, intensified after two journalists were arrested Wednesday while recharging their phones and working on their articles at a local McDonald's.

Nixon, appearing defensive at times as he briefed reporters in St. Louis County on Thursday afternoon, did not criticize the local police but said of Ferguson, "Lately, it's looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that's not acceptable." He said he had met with residents and listened to their concerns, and said of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed by the police in disputed circumstances on Saturday, that "a young man, a man not much younger than my own sons, lost his life."

Nixon, a Democrat who was Missouri's attorney general before being elected governor in 2008, did not describe specific changes to police practices, uniforms or equipment, but said it was time for a "different tone" that balanced the need to prevent looting with the right of residents to assemble and demonstrate.

"Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence, but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it," Nixon said.

Obama, speaking to reporters at a hastily arranged news conference on Martha's Vineyard, where he is vacationing, denounced attacks both on the police and on protesters, and pleaded for "peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson." He said he had spoken to Nixon and confirmed that he had instructed the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate the fatal shooting, "to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done."

The local police continued to face criticism for their refusal to identify the officer who shot Brown. On Thursday, a group identifying itself as Anonymous, the computer hacking collective, disclosed what it said was the name, but the St. Louis County police said it was wrong.

Obama said that local officials had "a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death." And he said the Justice Department was consulting with the local officials about appropriate responses to the protests.

"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," he said. "There's 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."

Obama also criticized the detentions of reporters, saying, "Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground."

To many, though, the president seemed less emotional and personal than he had been two years ago, when he called for "soul searching" after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young black man in Florida. "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said then.

Multiple national officials criticized the decision of the police in Ferguson to use military-style garb and equipment to respond to the protests. "At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. Later Thursday, Holder called Brown's parents and promised a full, independent investigation, according to a Justice Department official.

Across the political spectrum, officials seemed to agree. "The militarization of the response became more of the problem than any solution," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters in Ferguson. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said on Twitter, "This is America, not a war zone." And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote an essay for Time in which he called the militarization of the police "an unprecedented expansion of government power" and said, "The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action."

Elsewhere in the country, rallies were held to demand justice for Brown and to protest police tactics. In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix, thousands of protesters gathered in public squares with their hands up in gestures of surrender, chanting slogans like, "Hands up, don't shoot." In Miami, eight people were arrested.

In Ferguson, officials were unapologetic Thursday for their tough response to the protesters, which they said had been necessitated by violence and criminality: The police said some protesters had thrown rocks, bottles and even a firebomb at officers. If the situation warrants it, "the tactical units will be out there," said the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson. "If the crowd is being violent and you don't want to be violent, get out of the crowd."

The county executive, Charlie A. Dooley, called on residents to "calm down, stand down and be reasonable." But the mayor of St. Louis, Francis G. Slay, struck a different tone, describing himself as "sad and angry" and saying: "Justice must happen. The grieving must be comforted. The angry must be heard. The innocent must be protected."

Local police units were still helping to patrol Ferguson, but under a new command. The changes were obvious.

Johnson, walking through the streets Thursday, was approached by Karen Wood, who had been clutching a bright green sign against police brutality.

"Do you have a minute to at least talk to, you know, a parent?" Wood asked.

The captain, a veteran law enforcement officer assigned to oversee security here, stopped. As sweat stained his blue uniform, he clasped Wood's right hand and stood, for several minutes, listening to her story.

"Our youth are out here without guidance, without leadership," Wood told Johnson. "It's important that they know there is an order."

When Wood finished, Johnson patted her right shoulder and said softly: "I thank you. I thank you for your passion, and we're going to get better."

He then joined a group of passing protesters, marching with them as his eyes scanned the roadway. "I know a lot of them," he said. "Our police department, we have to be reflective of our community, and that's why we're all out here."

Jessica Daniel, who was marching with her young children, said she had listened to speeches by McCaskill and Nixon and perceived a change. "The whole tone just turned around," she said. "Now I feel like they are letting us know they think it's tragic, too. It's a beautiful thing."

Outside a restaurant, London's Wing House, Kristopher Conner said he was upset both by Brown's death and by the violence that followed it. He put up a sign saying proceeds from soda purchases would benefit Brown's family. And as officials hoped for calm, so did he.

"I just want it to get back to normal," Conner said. "Before everything happened, it was peaceful. You'd come to work, and now some people are just kind of worried that something might start up again."

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.