President Obama on Thursday escalated the federal response to the violent protests in Missouri over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager as state officials tried to de-escalate the crisis, bringing in the highway patrol to take over security from local police.
Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, Obama called for national unity and healing following the police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Obama said many Americans “have been deeply disturbed” by images of clashes between police and protesters, and he called for a thorough investigation “to see that justice is done.’’
Soon after, his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., issued a statement saying he was “deeply concerned” about “the deployment of military equipment and vehicles” to combat protesters in Ferguson. He said that a federal civil rights probe of the incident is escalating, with investigators having already interviewed eyewitnesses on the scene, and that Missouri officials have accepted federal assistance “to conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.’’
Obama’s remarks, his most comprehensive on the shooting to date, were the latest and most visible step in a rapid coalescence among political and community leaders to tamp down the violence and find ways to prevent it while multiple investigations of the tragedy move forward.
In a sudden burst of interest fueled by images of heavily armed police that swirled on social media, politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed on 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 remarkably similar from political opposites across the spectrum. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), for example, called for authorities to “de-militarize this situation,’’ while Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a likely Republican presidential candidate, condemned “the militarization of our law enforcement’’ in a Time magazine essay.
The increased concern also extended to state officials, with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announcing that the state highway patrol would supervise security operations
promising changes in the law enforcement approach in Ferguson, where days of anger over Brown’s death have been met by a forceful presence from St. Louis county and Ferguson police. Local forces will still be working on the ground, Nixon said, but the highway patrol “will be the lead agency.”
“I think you all will see a different tone,’’ Nixon said during an appearance at a chuch in Florissant.
Obama addressed the issue after a fourth night of clashes between police and residents in Ferguson. The fatal shooting by police of Brown there has evolved into a national debate over justice in African American communities.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama said, before adding:“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. And here in the United States of America, police should not be arresting or bullying journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.”
According to a friend who says he witnessed the incident, Brown was walking down a Ferguson street when a police officer in a car ordered him to get on the sidewalk. Brown had his hands in the air to show he was unarmed when the officer shot him multiple times, the friend said. The police version is that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to grab his gun.
Obama attended a birthday party in Martha’s Vineyard for a friend Wednesday during the latest unrest. Police fired tear gas at protesters, and two reporters, including one from The Washington Post, were arrested while covering the events.
In concluding his remarks about Ferguson on Thursday, Obama said that while “emotions are raw right now” in the suburb and accounts of the tragedy differ, “let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”
“Now is the time for healing,” Obama said. “Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done. And I’ve asked the attorney general and the U.S. attorney on the scene to continue to work with local officials to move that process forward.”
Obama did not take questions from reporters after his remarks.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division, along with the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis and the local FBI field office, are investigating the shooting in a parallel probe to the state investigation. Holder, who met with Obama on Thursday to discuss the case, said: “Our review will take time to conduct, but it will be thorough and fair.”
The Ferguson police department bears little demographic resemblance to the mostly African American community, where residents harbored suspicions of law enforcement long before the shooting.
In a one-paragraph written statement Tuesday, Obama called Brown’s death “heartbreaking.” He urged Ferguson and communities across the country to “remember this young man through reflection and understanding,” adding, “We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
Before Obama spoke Thursday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said in an interview on CNN that the arrest of the two reporters Wednesday night “appeared regrettable.” He added, “We will make sure that reporters are treated in a proper fashion.”
Knowles also said that the release of names of police officers by the group Anonymous has jeopardized their safety. “None of those officers have anything to do with what went on,” he said. “Anybody now who’s named is absolutely in danger.”
In a midday news conference, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson sought to explain the arrest of peaceful protesters, saying that police could not distinguish them when moving against crowds involved in violence or vandalism.
“It’s a crowd,” Jackson said. “If the crowd is getting violent, and you don’t want to be violent, get out of the crowd.”
He said that “journalists are not a target” for the police and that he did not know why the two reporters were arrested Wednesday night.
Asked if he was concerned about the “militaristic” image that the local police have presented, Jackson said: “The whole picture is being painted a little bit sideways from what’s really happening. It’s not military. It’s tactical operations. It’s SWAT teams. That’s who’s out there: police. We’re doing this in blue.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.