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Obama decries excessive force against Missouri police shooting protesters

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2014

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."

"Lately it's looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that's unacceptable," Mr. Nixon said. "To change this course, we're going to have to join hands."

The governor announced he was ordering the state highway patrol to provide security in Ferguson, taking that duty out of the hands of the local police department, putting what he called "a little more peaceful interaction on the front" lines of the police contingent that will be on the streets.

Mr. Nixon then introduced the head of the highway patrol, Capt. Ronald Johnson, who is black.

"I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling, and our officers will respect both of those," Capt. Johnson said.

While Mr. Obama chided law enforcement and has ordered the Justice Department to conduct a civil rights probe, he also urged protesters not to engage in violence and appealed for calm.

"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," Mr. Obama said. "I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson. Let's remember that we're part of one American family. Now's the time for healing; now's the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson."

His words were apparently being heeded all around as hundreds of people marched through the streets of Ferguson again Thursday evening, but this time the mood was jubilant, with cars honking alongside protesters in celebration.

According to reporters on the scene and images on cable TV, marchers were shaking hands with the state troopers, who were in the town under Capt. Johnson's personal supervision. Some marchers stopped to thank the highway patrol chief, and a few even hugged him.

"You can feel it. You can see it," protester Cleo Willis told the AP about the changed atmosphere. "Now it's up to us to ride that feeling."

Capt. Johnson said he would speak with the demonstrators throughout the evening. "We're going to have some conversations with them and get an understanding of what's going on," he said.

The president had stopped short of taking other steps that some liberals are advocating, such as imposing martial law.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil rights leader during the 1960s, was one of those calling on the president for a more robust federal response, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower did against Jim Crow-defending Southern governors.

"President Obama should use the authority of his office to declare martial law," Mr. Lewis said on MSNBC. "Federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest, and people should come together."

His host on the show, Andrea Mitchell, referred to the situation in Ferguson as a "national crisis."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said police need to "demilitarize" in Ferguson due to their response against the protesters.

"This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution," she said. "I obviously respect law enforcement's work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right."

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, also decried "the militarization of local police" and said the federal government is to blame for helping to fund what he described as "essentially small armies," with police packing the type of equipment generally used on a battlefield.

"If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off," Mr. Paul wrote at Time.com. "But I wouldn't have expected to be shot."

Mr. Paul said the problem becomes even worse when civil liberties are eroded, allowing the police to "become the judge and jury."

"Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Mr. Paul wrote.

Government watchdogs have reported a sharp increase in the amount of military-style hardware being transferred from the federal government to local police departments through the Pentagon, Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

A Defense Department program known as "1033" transferred equipment worth $450 million to police in 2013, up from $324 million in 1995, according to the ACLU.

An estimated 500 law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs.

Defense Logistics Agency spokesman Joe Yoswa told reporters Thursday night that the Ferguson PD had received some military surplus equipment under the program, most prominently two Humvees.

Rep. Hank C. "Henry" Johnson Jr. plans to introduce legislation that would "end the free transfers" of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, saying the events in Ferguson show the need to demilitarize police forces.
The Georgia Democrat sent a letter Thursday morning alerting lawmakers that he planned to introduce in September the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

"Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s," Mr. Johnson wrote. "Unfortunately, due to a Department of Defense (DOD) program that transfers surplus DOD equipment to state and local law enforcement, our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces."

Mr. Obama emphasized the need for "justice" in the shooting of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed during an encounter with a police officer on Saturday.

"It's important to remember how this started," Mr. Obama said. "We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again."

Much as he did after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012, Mr. Obama made it clear he will be watching the criminal justice outcome of this particular shooting death closely.

"When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities," the president said. "I made clear to the attorney general that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done."

Police have also drawn criticism for arresting two reporters on Wednesday night and dismantling TV equipment. The reporters for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post were later released without charges but said they were roughed up by officers.

In an incident captured by another TV station's crew, a team of Al Jazeera America reporters and technicians were attacked with tear gas as they set up their equipment. Once they had fled, the police took down their lighting.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, condemned police for targeting journalists who were "simply doing their jobs." Mr. Cruz also issued a general plea for calm.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, spoke with Mr. Holder and said he supported the parallel local and federal investigations.

"It's important to remember that this tragedy began when a young man lost his life," Mr. Blunt said. "Michael Brown's memory, his family and his community are not well served by more violence."

Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.

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