President Obama stepped into a racially charged police shooting in Missouri on Thursday, calling on local police to show restraint with demonstrators as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. criticized the authorities’ military-style tactics and Gov. Jay Nixon ordered state police to take over security in the roiling town of Ferguson.
“We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” Mr. Obama said in his first televised remarks about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white policeman in the predominantly black town of Ferguson, Missouri.
The president said there is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” He scolded police for their tactics, reminding officers that they work “here in the United States of America.”
“Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” Mr. Obama said. “Now’s the time for healing. Now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”
It’s the third time Mr. Obama has weighed in on a high-profile law enforcement incident involving race. Following the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the president said the victim “could have been me 35 years ago”; and in 2009 he accused police of “acting stupidly” when they arrested black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates outside his home.
Later Thursday, there were further demonstrations in Ferguson, though with a very different-looking police presence, and a number of solidarity rallies were held around the country, including moment-of-silence gatherings in more than 90 cities.
After four nights of violent confrontations between protesters and police firing tear gas and deploying armored vehicles and officers in body armor and camouflage, Mr. Obama conferred with Mr. Holder from the president’s vacation spot in Martha’s Vineyard.
The nation’s top law enforcement official then told police that he was “deeply concerned” about their use of military equipment in an episode that is raising broader concerns about the post-9/11 arsenals of local police departments.
“The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them,” Mr. Holder said. “Those who peacefully gather to express sympathy for the family of Michael Brown must have their rights respected at all times. And journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.”
Mr. Holder said he directed Justice Department officials to advise local police on crowd control tactics and to “maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.” He said local police were complying with the advice to show less force.
According to a law enforcement official speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, Mr. Holder spoke to the Brown family by phone Thursday when they visited the U.S. attorney’s office in Missouri. Mr. Holder promised them a full, independent civil rights investigation, the official said.
In his public words, the attorney general also said acts of violence by the public “cannot be condoned.”
“Looting and willful efforts to antagonize law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to protect the public do nothing to remember the young man who has died,” Mr. Holder said. “Such conduct is unacceptable.”
The president also called Mr. Nixon and expressed his concern over what he called “the violent turn that events have taken on the ground.”
Mr. Nixon, a Democrat, met with faith leaders in the community and visited the scene of the shooting after getting criticized for being “missing in action.” Mr. Nixon said residents “want their streets to be free of intimidation and fear.”