Jeff Roberson / AP

Missouri governor puts highway patrol in charge of Ferguson security

Change made after local police accused of using excessive force during protests over shooting of unarmed teen

The Missouri Highway Patrol took control of security in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson on Thursday amid mounting public anger at city and county police departments after four days of clashes between officers in riot gear and furious crowds protesting the death of an unarmed black teen shot by an officer.

Gov. Jay Nixon handed security oversight to Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson after the local police response drew heavy criticism.

A group of St. Louis County police and state troopers walked alongside demonstrators at protests Thursday night. Several marchers stopped to shake hands with officers, and one woman hugged Johnson.

Thursday night's protests were a world apart from the earlier demonstrations, with a light, even festive atmosphere and no hint of violence. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter.

Protester Cleo Willis said the change was palpable.

"You can feel it. You can see it," he said. "Now it's up to us to ride that feeling."

Nixon said the change is intended to make sure "that we allow peaceful and appropriate protests, that we use force only when necessary, that we step back a little bit and let some of the energy be felt in this region appropriately."

Johnson said he grew up in the community and "it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence."

Demonstrations sympathetic to protesters in Ferguson took place across the country Thursday night as the mood of marchers in Missouri changed, the New York Times reported.

A forceful police response to protests over the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in a mostly black Missouri town — where officers have been dispersing crowds with blaring sirens, tear gas and rubber bullets — prompted Nixon on Thursday to change gears and let the highway patrol take over. 

The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has been the scene of both peaceful and violent demonstrations since a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday. Witnesses have said that Brown had his hands up when he was killed, but police maintain the young, unarmed man tried to grab the officer’s gun. Protesters are demanding the office face criminal charges.

At least 10 protesters were arrested overnight, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Authorities have arrested at least 50 since Saturday.

The St. Louis County Police Department, which met protesters with military-style equipment and sniper rifles trained on unarmed protesters, has faced stern criticism from politicians and community activists for allegedly taking a “militarized” approach to containing the assemblies that were peaceful. 

“The [state] patrol will be the lead agency when it comes to security” at the protests in Ferguson, although other police forces will be involved, Nixon said.

“The challenge we face today is not whether we’ve shown enough strength,” he said. “I think we’ve shown that.”

Speaking to reporters, he said law enforcement personnel would provide protection for business owners. Looters hit businesses in the town on Sunday night.

Along with criminal charges, protesters are calling for the release of the officer’s name. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal petition for the release of the incident report. Nixon said he hoped that would happen soon, with appropriate steps taken to ensure the officer’s safety.

“I think it would be an important milestone here to get that out as expeditiously as possible,” Nixon said.  

When asked by a reporter about long-standing accusations by minority communities that they face harassment and unfair treatment by police, Nixon said that the shooting “has touched a nerve,” and that he hoped it would become an opportunity for reconciliation in the racially divided city along the Mississippi River.

Residents of the town expressed anger at the way police have reacted to peaceful protesters.

“I’ve had enough of being pushed around because of the color of my skin. I’m sick of this police brutality,” said one protester, who only gave his first name, Terrell.

“I’m going to keep coming back here night after night until we get justice,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon, President Barack Obama urged Americans to unite under the country’s common values.

“Now’s the time for healing, now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said in a televised address from Martha's Vineyard where he is vacationing.

“We all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, particularly those in a position of authority,” he added.

The president also criticized police for their treatment of two journalists who were detained by police on Wednesday.

Police “should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” Obama said, addressing the arrests of a Huffington Post reporter and a Washington Post reporter as a SWAT team cleared people out of a McDonald’s restaurant.

Obama said Thursday that the Department of Justice was consulting with local authorities in Ferguson “to maintain public safety without restricting peaceful protests” or engaging in “unnecessary escalation.”

The president said that protesters had no excuse for using violence against police or for looting, and that police had no excuse for throwing peaceful protesters in jail.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who has been the public face of the city torn by Brown's death, told reporters Wednesday that the St. Louis County investigation of Brown's shooting could take weeks to complete.

In the meantime, he said his department welcomes Justice Department training on race relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black and all but three of the police force's 53 officers are white.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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