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Anger mounts at death of unarmed black teenager in Missouri; FBI launches investigation

A large crowd gathers at a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
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The FBI said Monday it was launching a civil rights investigation into the death of an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by police in Missouri, as protests over the killing stretched into their third day.

Michael Brown was shot and killed on Saturday by an unidentified police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a small, predominantly African-American city just outside St. Louis. His death immediately sparked outrage, with protests and vigils beginning that day and showing no sign of abating on Monday. The reaction took a violent turn on Sunday, as some protesters began looting businesses in the Ferguson area over several hours, leaving a trail of broken glass and burned-out storefronts in their wake.

It is still unclear what exactly happened when Brown was killed on Saturday, but the episode evoked a string of recent racially-charged cases that includes the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Brown’s family has hired attorney Benjamin Crump, who was also the attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family, Crump announced early Monday morning.

Police have said that it appears Brown was shot following a physical altercation with a police officer at his cruiser and a struggle involving the officer’s gun. But authorities have not said what exactly resulted in Brown being shot multiple times nearly three dozen feet from the officer’s car.

Crump, speaking at a news conference on Monday evening, said that witnesses have disputed the account offered by police, but he did not elaborate on what these witnesses said occurred.

Cheryl Mimura, an FBI special agent in St. Louis, said that the bureau was opening an investigation into any potential civil rights violations that may have occurred.

“Just because we’ve opened a case doesn’t meant there is a civil rights violation, it’s to determine whether or not there has been a civil rights violation,” Mimura said on Monday morning.

This investigation will be conducted separately from one being carried out by the St. Louis County police, she said. But the FBI will also continue to monitor the county’s investigation as well.

“The shooting incident in Ferguson, Missouri this weekend deserves a fulsome review,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. Holder said that the FBI’s investigation “will supplement, rather than supplant,” the local inquiry.

“At every step, we will work with the local investigators, who should be prepared to complete a thorough, fair investigation in their own right,” he said. “Aggressively pursuing investigations such as this is critical for preserving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Holder had already instructed attorneys in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division “to monitor developments relating to the shooting incident,” department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in an e-mail to The Washington Post.

The St. Louis County Police Department said it is investigating the shooting at the request of the Ferguson police and has promised an impartial investigation since none of its officers were involved. Ferguson is in St. Louis County.

“I want to assure you that this is a very complicated investigation, as it should be,” Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County police,  said during a news conference on Monday. “A man lost his life. There’s a police officer involved in this. We need to make sure this investigation is done right.”

An autopsy of Brown showed that he was “struck several times by gunfire,” Belmar said Monday. The autopsy was carried out on Sunday, the day after Brown was killed, and his body was returned to his family for burial.

Michael Brown’s parents spoke briefly at a news conference on Monday night. Lesley McSpadden, his mother, was overcome with emotion several times. “I just wish I could’ve been there to help him,” McSpadden said, shaking her head.

Tears streamed down her face as their attorney discussed how that very day, Brown was supposed to start college at Vatterott College, a trade school.

“He was a good boy,” Michael Brown Sr. said. “He didn’t deserve none of this. None of it. We need justice for our son.”

Crump called on anyone with a video recording of Brown’s death to come forward so they can find out “exactly what happened,” he said.

“Their baby was executed in broad daylight,” Crump said.

News that the FBI would conduct its own investigation came as the shooting — and the ensuing violence — drew national attention. There have been multiple public gatherings since Brown was killed, with protesters marching and chanting near the Ferguson police headquarters again on Monday.

The looting on Sunday night was the work of only part of the crowd that had gathered to protest, Belmar said. He said the police got thousands of calls for shots fired, burglaries and assaults, among other things. Businesses including a Wal-Mart were looted, while a photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch documented a burning convenience store.

Hundreds of police officers responded to the looting on Sunday night, arresting 32 people in total, according to the St. Louis County police. Two officers suffered relatively minor injuries. The people who were arrested could be facing charges of assault, burglary and larceny, a spokesman said.

Brown’s death comes just weeks after Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. The National Bar Association has called for an investigation into the deaths of both Brown and Garner. This is the only way that “the African American community’s faith in law enforcement can be strengthened,” Pamela Meanes, president of the association, said in a statement.

“The death of yet another African-American at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community where he lived is heartbreaking,” Cornell William Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP, said in a statement.

Several elected officials in Missouri called for investigations into Brown’s death. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and the state’s two U.S. senators all called for a “transparent” examinations of what happened, as did authorities and groups in the St. Louis area.

Just over two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are black, while about 70 percent of St. Louis County’s 1 million residents are white, according to the U.S. Census.

“We are asking the public to be calm, be patient and be prayerful,” Charlie Dooley, the St. Louis County executive, said in the news conference on Monday.

Belmar, the county police chief, said detectives still need to speak with several witnesses in the apartment complex near where Brown was shot, adding that it is taking time for police to talk to all of the witnesses.

“The public has a right to be skeptical,” he said. “And I appreciate that and I would expect that the public be skeptical…But I would also ask the public to be reasonable, because it takes a long time to make sure we do this investigation the right way.”

Belmar said on Sunday that a Ferguson police officer “had an encounter” with Brown and another person on Sunday. At some point, the officer was reportedly pushed back in the car and “physically assaulted,” the chief said.

There was a struggle over the officer’s weapon, which was fired once in the car, he said. Following that, the officer got out of the car and shot at the teenager multiple times. Brown was killed about 35 feet away from the officer’s car, Belmar said.

The officer involved has been placed on paid administrative leave. He has not been identified yet.

This post has been updated.