WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said he has dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with federal and local authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by police has sparked days of protests and violence.
Obama again urged calm in Ferguson, where protesters have taken to the streets daily for the past week calling for the police officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown to be charged with murder.
“It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting,” Obama said at the White House. “A small minority is not.”
Saying he understood the anger of the demonstrators, he said giving into those feelings “only serves to raise tensions.”
Obama spoke following meeting with Holder and other advisers today at the White House on the situation in the St. Louis suburb, after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops into the town to restore order. Obama said he also spoke with Nixon Monday by telephone.
The administration has limited legal options in responding to the unrest that has engulfed the Missouri town. While the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown, any resolution of that inquiry is likely to be a long way off.
Monday’s White House meeting and the announcement that Holder would go to Missouri are designed to signal the department is aggressively investigating the case, and may be followed by additional public steps to show a commitment to the probe, said Matt Miller, Holder’s former top spokesman.
“The Justice Department’s main role in a situation like this is to calm the waters by assuring the community that there will be a full, independent, credible investigation,” said Miller, now a crisis communications consultant.
Miller said it was unlikely the Obama administration would move to directly take over local law enforcement with steps such as by federalizing the National Guard.
“The reason you federalize the National Guard is when you have a state that’s intransigent like during the 1960s and the governor won’t take action,” he said. “That’s not been the case here.”
The Justice Department so far has been reluctant to take over the investigation into the shooting, to ensure that local authorities are accountable for handling potential police misconduct.
“They have some tools they can use, but it would be better for the locals to handle it,” said Roscoe Howard, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Howard said he could see Nixon appointing a special prosecutor in the case. “That would remove some of the politics from it.”
Obama said he didn’t want to be “prejudging these events before investigations are complete.”
A preliminary autopsy made public by lawyers for Brown’s family shows he was struck at least six times by bullets from the officer’s pistol. At least two of the shots hit Brown in the head, former New York City chief medical examiner Michael Baden, who conducted the examination, said Monday at a news conference in St. Louis.
An official autopsy by the St. Louis county medical examiner hasn’t been released.
Attempts by local officials to quell violence haven’t been successful. After organized groups attacked police officers with firearms and gasoline bombs last night, Nixon ordered the state National Guard into the town.
“Molotov cocktails were thrown, there were shootings, looting, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous,” said Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. No police officers were injured, he said at a news conference early today.
Police in riot gear “came out in tanks and started shooting,” said Lisha Williams, a 45-year-old from St. Louis who was in a crowd of protesters yesterday as the gas was deployed. “My face is still burning.”
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