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Holder criticizes police response in Ferguson, says he is ‘deeply concerned’ about use of military equipment

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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Attorney General Eric Holder called on authorities in Ferguson, Mo., to keep the peace “without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force,” emphasizing in a statement Thursday that things have to change in the city.

Holder also announced that Missouri officials had on Thursday accepted an offer of “technical assistance” from the Justice Department aimed at helping these local authorities improve their response to the crowds in suburban St. Louis.

“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,” Holder said.

The announcement came as state and national figures seemed to finally mobilize in response to the situation in Ferguson, which has been the site of repeated confrontations between protesters and heavily armed police since an officer fatally shot teenager Michael Brown on Saturday. Gov. Jay Nixon (D), visiting the area Thursday for the first time since the shooting, has promised changes to the way police are responding.

It is unclear precisely what these changes could entail, but Holder’s statement suggests that federal forces could be part of the shifting police presence in Ferguson. Residents in the city have criticized the heavy-handed police response, while also complaining that other state officials had not come in to take over in recent days. The situation in Ferguson has been fraught since Brown’s death, with looting Sunday night and police deploying tear gas and rubber bullets the following nights.

Holder also discussed the importance of increasing “diversity in law enforcement,” which has become a part of the discussion in the wake of the shooting. Two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are black, but just three of its 53 police officers are black, and this dissonance between the residents and those sworn to protect them is seen as playing into the tension that has been building in the city.

On Monday, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into Brown’s shooting. In a statement that day, Holder said the shooting deserved a full review, stressing the need for an aggressive investigation.

In addition, he said that “journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told,” seemingly a reference to the arrest of two reporters (including The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery) on Wednesday night.

This stance on behalf of media freedom was also noted in a tweet from a Justice Department spokesman, who referred to the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly — arrested along with Lowery — as “a gutsy reporter.” That was criticized, in part because the same department has also investigated several journalists, obtaining phone records and tracking reporter movements.

The Obama administration, which has cracked down harshly on leaks, has been decried for its treatment of press freedom. In one extreme example, James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, faces potential jail time for failing to identify a source. Earlier this year, Holder had said “no reporter” would go to jail for doing their job while he was attorney general, echoing similar comments he had made in the past.