Something had to change in Ferguson. We can only hope for the sake of that beleaguered community that Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision to put the state Highway Patrol in charge of security will help to restore calm.
All week, police from St. Louis County and local communities have been putting on a great demonstration of how not to handle a crisis situation.
They have treated protesters like invading troops, confronting them with heavy weaponry, SWAT teams and automatic weapons. They threw tear gas canisters at people standing in their own yards. They violated constitutional rights by refusing to allow people to assemble, arresting journalists without cause and illegally ordering news crews not to film.
The public deserves to learn who was responsible for such aggressive decisions. Those officials should be held accountable, as should police officers who were filmed carrying out provocative actions, such as pointing guns at unarmed civilians and calling protesters “animals.”
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But the task at hand is to allow people to express themselves while protecting lives and property in north St. Louis County, which has been in turmoil since Saturday, when a Ferguson police officer fatally shot an unarmed teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Nixon and Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol promised what Nixon described as “a softer approach.” It wasn’t immediately clear what that means, but police immediately began working crowds without rifles or riot gear.
Nixon should have stepped in at least a day earlier, when it became apparent that police were ratcheting up tensions with their military-style approach. Their heavy artillery and aggressive tactics brought a harsh spotlight to Missouri.
But the governor appears to have made the right move by putting Johnson in charge. He grew up in the Ferguson area and understands the fears and frustrations of residents.
Many of the people showing up at the protests are not from the St. Louis area. They, too, need to back off and give Michael Brown’s family and community space to grieve his death and all that has happened since.