WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials on Thursday stepped up their investigation into the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., while Missouri Highway Patrol officers took over security in the town that’s been roiled by demonstrations.
With a wide-ranging crew of Justice Department officials already on the ground, President Barack 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, adding that “now is the time for an open and transparent process.”
Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts where he is vacationing with his family, Obama further intensified the federal focus by noting the Justice Department and the FBI “will be reporting to me in the coming days about what’s being done.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke to Obama, further promised changes in the way police have handled unrest in the St. Louis suburb, vowing a “different tone.”
“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.’”
Local officers from Ferguson and the county police will remain involved, Nixon said, but Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol would be in charge.
“We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” Johnson said at a news conference.
Obama’s brief but pointed remarks were the first time he has spoken in public about the subject since a still-unidentified Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown following an altercation Saturday.
Attorney General Eric Holder and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett briefed Obama about the situation on Wednesday, and Holder met again with Obama on Thursday morning.
On Thursday, Holder elaborated that the Justice Department investigation into the shooting of the African-American 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.
In addition, Holder said the Justice Department is making available “technical assistance” to local authorities in order to help “conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.” The local authorities in Missouri accepted this offer Thursday afternoon.
“I think the police response has become part of the problem as opposed to being part of the solution,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said.
The unspecified assistance is being channeled in part through the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office. The COPS office has previously provided millions of dollars in grants to help hire officers for both the St. Louis County Department of Police and the City of Ferguson, Justice Department records show.
The Justice Department also dispatched officials with its Community Relations Service to help convene meetings with local law enforcement officers and local clergy and others, in an effort to defuse tension.
It’s not uncommon for federal investigations to follow fatal incidents, particularly when the spotlight gets hot. Following the 2012 shooting death in Florida of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, the Justice Department conducted a separate investigation. No federal charges have been brought.
Most famously, perhaps, the Justice Department won federal convictions in 1993 against two Los Angeles police officers who earlier had been acquitted in state court on charges related to the savage beating of Rodney King. The 1992 acquittals had sparked six days of rioting that left 53 dead.
Some want to broaden the federal investigation into the Ferguson events.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., whose district includes Kansas City, joined Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and other Congressional Black Caucus members in urging the Justice Department to examine both the shooting and the potential for any pattern of misconduct by the 72-member Ferguson Police Department.
Though the St. Louis County Police Department is also investigating, Cleaver and his colleagues claimed the department “may not be the most objective or credible body to investigate civil rights matters involving law enforcement given evidence of racial profiling by that department in the recent past.”
“Only the federal government has the resources, the experience and the full independence to give this case the close scrutiny that the citizens of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area deserve,” the lawmakers wrote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., likewise called for an expansive federal inquiry that looks into “any federal civil rights violations” as well as “the longstanding issues between the citizens of Ferguson and their elected officials and local law enforcement.”
Going even further, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on Holder to “undertake a comprehensive review of police-involved assaults and killings of unarmed individuals, with a focus on killings of unarmed African-Americans.”
“The tragic death of Michael Brown has revealed a dirty secret in Missouri and that is that there are communities in which many of the citizens, the minority citizens, feel oppressed as relates to the municipal government or police,” Cleaver said in an interview Thursday.
Following Trayvon Martin’s death, the Justice Department initiated a $4.75 million study of the role race might play in police stops, searches and arrests.
William Douglas in Washington and Jason Hancock of The Kansas City Star in Ferguson, Mo., contributed to this report.