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Missouri takes over security in strife-torn town

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson speaks as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (right) and St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay watch Thursday during a news conference at University of Missouri-St. Louis in St. Louis. Nixon on Thursday named the African-American state Highway Patrol captain to oversee security in Ferguson, after scathing criticism of the local police department’s handling of protests over an officer’s fatal shooting of a black teenager. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)1 / 2
Demonstrators protest outside of Greater St. Mark’s Family Church in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)2 / 2

FERGUSON, Mo. — Hoping to bring “a softer front” to the law enforcement presence in Ferguson after five nights of clashes between police and protesters, the Missouri State Highway Patrol will take over directing security in the city, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday.

Security will be overseen by Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black and said he grew up in the community and said “it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.”

“We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” Johnson said at a news conference.

The announcement was made hours after President Barack Obama sought to calm the tense situation, saying that there was “no excuse” for “excessive force” by police or for looting or violence aimed at law enforcement. Obama said the police have a responsibility to be “open and transparent” about the events that led up to the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a Ferguson police officer Saturday that spawned the protests.

With a wide-ranging crew of Justice Department officials already on the ground, Obama urged calm and offered reassurances that a full investigation is underway.

“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,” Obama said.

Nixon said earlier that he would change the tone in the St. Louis suburb after the unrest and the Ferguson police chief said he was also working to de-escalate tensions between officers and demonstrators.

 “We have to have safety,” said Nixon, a Democrat. “We also have to allow those who need to express their energy in an appropriate way, the right to do that. We will not get the feeling that we all need if the only response from the public is ‘you all just be quiet.’

 “What is happening now is not what any of us want,” Ferguson Chief Thomas Jackson said at a press briefing, adding that officers and community leaders are planning to better “facilitate” demonstrators’ right to rally.

The comments from the governor and police chief came in response to escalating clashes between law enforcement officers and protesters since Saturday’s police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old. After an intense scene Wednesday night — which included the detention of two journalists — top elected officials expressed alarm over the heavy police response.

Protesters filled the streets for a fifth night on Thursday in the mostly black suburb of Ferguson.

The mood was largely peaceful, even festive at times, in sharp contrast to tense nightly standoffs between heavily armed riot police flanked by armored cars and angry protesters, as well as episodes of looting, vandalism and violence.

A crowd of about 2,000 peaceful demonstrators walked to a church hosting a prayer vigil, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and waving signs as a single squad car blocked traffic to let them pass. More white marchers were among the protesters compared with previous days.

About 2,000 more people assembled near the site of Saturday’s shooting, with broadcasters showing footage of Johnson and a handful of officers walking among them.

In the forecourt of a gas station burned out during rioting, a cowboy was riding on a horse and a group of children were dancing on pavement covered in chalk drawings with the words: “Now the world knows your name, RIP Mike Mike.”

The protests have cast a spotlight on racial tensions in greater St. Louis, where civil rights groups have complained in the past that police racially profiled blacks, arrested a disproportionate number of blacks and had racist hiring practices.

Brown’s shooting galvanized a national moment of silence and rallies in other U.S. cities.

In New York, a large crowd briefly overwhelmed a small police presence in Union Square park, forcing officers to scramble to close one of Manhattan’s major thoroughfares.

In St. Louis, CNN footage showed hundreds of people peacefully assembled in the shadow of the iconic Gateway Arch, Brown’s mother and other family members among them.

U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement Thursday that he was “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message” to the community and law enforcement “must seek to reduce tension, not heighten them.”

Holder said that the Justice Department investigation into the shooting of the black teen will be “in parallel” with the local investigation underway.

“Our investigators from the Civil Rights Division and U.S. attorney’s office in Missouri have already conducted interviews with eyewitnesses on the scene at the time of the shooting incident on Saturday,” Holder said. “Our review will take time to conduct, but it will be thorough and fair.”

Robert Moossy Jr., chief of the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, is on the scene along with his staff, according to the Justice Department. The University of Houston Law Center graduate and career prosecutor has previously handed highly sensitive issues, including human trafficking cases.

At the community meeting Thursday morning, dozens of beleaguered residents and community leaders filled the pews at the Christ the King United Church of Christ in neighboring Florissant, and it didn’t take long for the grievances to pour out.

Although they were upset over the shooting, community members — especially the parents of young children — indicated their primary concern had become the police response to the demonstrations that followed.

Others expressed disgust for white out-of-towners who were seen lighting trash bins on fire and carrying around Molotov cocktails. The Sunday looting and vandalism that shut down neighborhood stores was also stopping residents from doing needed errands.

Tremaine Combs, 32, said fear had infected his 5-year-old son in recent days.

As they were leaving a nearby Walgreens on Wednesday evening, he said, his son spotted a police officer driving by. “He was so terrified that he started crying,” Combs said.

Combs said he came to Thursday’s meeting because he didn’t want his son to grow up feeling like that.

Ferguson is a working-class suburb of 21,000. Two-thirds of residents are black, but police and city officials are predominantly white.

Local law enforcement authorities have released few details about the shooting, and several witnesses have disputed the police account.

Brown had been walking in the street with a friend Saturday about noon when, according to police, an officer drove up and tried to get out of his patrol car, and Brown pushed the officer back into the car. After an altercation over the officer’s weapon in the car, the officer and Brown got out of the vehicle, and the fatal shooting occurred, according to St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.

Bystanders said Brown had raised his hands to surrender when the fatal shots occurred.

McClatchy Newspapers and Reuters contributed to this report.