Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the law enforcement officer in charge of police in the Missouri city, described Wednesday as "a very good night" at a 2:30 a.m. press conference on Thursday. He credited clergy, local leaders he called "elders," law-abiding citizens and Holder for changing the mood in the St. Louis suburb which has seen 11 nights of racially charged unrest since the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Holder let the community know that their voices were being heard at the highest level of law enforcement, Johnson said.
Although Johnson listed what had not happened – no fires, no shooting, not Molotov cocktails, no smoke, no tear gas, no guns confiscated – some officers with "long guns" were present but not in the front lines as was seen on previous nights. Johnson also said a police officer was hit with a bottle at 8 p.m. local time and police made six arrests, most for failure to disperse, one for disturbing the peace. Johnson, accentuating the positive, pointed out that 47 protesters had been arrested the night before.
And Johnson stressed that an officer who pointed a semi-automatic assault rifle at demonstrators, then cursed and threatened to kill one of them on Tuesday was suspended on Wednesday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Holder the first African-American to head the Justice Department, met with local officials, including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and Lacy Clay, both Democrats.
He also conferred with students and then community leaders at a community college.
He later met privately with Brown's parents at the St. Louis U.S. Attorney's Office. During the private 20-minute meeting, the family asked about the investigative process and Holder pledged that it would be a "fair and independent" inquiry. Before meeting with Holder on Wednesday afternoon, Brown's mother had viewed her son's body at a local morgue for the first time since the shooting.
Also on Wednesday, a grand jury investigating the fatal shooting began hearing evidence in the case.
Before a briefing at local FBI headquarters, Holder said the thrust of his department's inquiry differed from the investigation conducted by local authorities.
"We are looking for violations of federal, criminal civil rights statutes," he said.
The Justice Department probe specifically seeks to determine whether federal prosecutors can bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, for violating Brown's civil rights by use of excessive force.
Holder said during his visit that he had assigned the most experienced agents and prosecutors to the investigation.
Hundreds of people have already been interviewed and federal medical examiners have performed an independent autopsy, the third conducted in the killing.
The case has reignited a national debate over racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system and has drawn criticism from U.N. officials and human rights groups about police tactics and the need to respect the rights of protesters.
Ferguson is predominantly black, but its police force, political leadership and public education administration are dominated by whites. Activists and demonstrators have complained that Brown's death was the culmination of years of unfair police targeting of blacks.
Also on Wednesday, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said his office could continue presenting evidence to the grand jury – which meets once a week – through mid-October as he confronts conflicting pressures for speed and thoroughness.
Outside McCulloch's office, scores of protesters led by clergy members called for his removal from the case. They also demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor, an expedited grand jury proceeding and the immediate arrest of the 28-year-old officer involved in the shooting. Wilson has been placed on leave and gone into seclusion.
McCulloch's father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man, and his critics say he has a record of discriminatory handling of cases involving police and suspected mistreatment of blacks.
"There is no trust in Bob McCulloch," said Clinton Stancil, senior pastor of Wayman AME Church in St. Louis. "We are seeking justice. We don't think he can be fair."
Al Jazeera and wire services
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