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Governor promises ‘a different tone’ in police action at protests

Governor strips local police of their law-enforcement authority after four days of clashes between officers and furious crowds.

First Published Aug 14 2014 10:07 am • Last Updated Aug 14 2014 09:57 pm

Ferguson, Mo. • Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday that unspecified "operational shifts" are ahead for law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb that has been the scene of violent protests since a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.

Speaking at a meeting of clergy and community members, the governor told the audience that "you all will see a different tone" in law enforcement’s response to the demonstrations in the town of Ferguson.

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Nixon did not elaborate on the changes ahead, but they are likely to be explained at a news conference planned for later in the day.

In his first in-person remarks about the tense standoff, 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 of 18-year-old Michael Brown. 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. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton called Thursday for the Justice Department to monitor Ferguson and the way police are handling the crisis.


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"Even if we disagree, this climate is not good for anyone and is dangerous for everyone," Sharpton said in a statement.

At the community meeting, Sierra Smith, who lives in the neighborhood 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."

Nixon has faced increasing criticism over suggestions he has not done enough to calm tensions.

State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal had been particularly critical of the governor, accusing him 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.

Officers from multiple departments in riot gear and in military equipment have clashed nightly with protesters, who chant, "Hands up, don’t shoot." Protesters faced heavily armed police who at times trained weapons on them from armored trucks.

Two reporters said they were detained by police 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 invoked the 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.

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