Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday that the Missouri Highway Patrol will take control of the situation in Ferguson from St. Louis County and local police.
"What's gone on in the last few days is not what Missouri is about. It's not what Ferguson is about," Nixon said at a Thursday afternoon press conference. "This is a place where people work, go to school, raise your families, and go to church. A diverse community, a Missouri community—and lately it's looked like a war zone and it's unacceptable."
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Nixon's announcement will help to clear up some of the confusion in Ferguson, where the city's police, St. Louis County police, St. Louis city police, the highway patrol, and federal authorities have all been involved in the process of securing the city's streets and investigating the shooting of Michael Brown. Nixon's decision to put control of the situation in the hands of the highway patrol will not affect the investigation into Brown's death, he said.
However, "the immediate security responsibility will be directed by Missouri State Highway Patrol, who have proven themselves time and again when Missourians have needed them the most," Nixon said.
Nixon's announcement comes on the heels of rumors throughout the day that the St. Louis County police would be relieved from their duties in the area. The city of Ferguson has been the site of a number of clashes between officers and protesters in the days since an officer shot Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
Local police clashed with protesters after Brown's death on Saturday, drawing criticism for heavy-handed tactics. Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators, and an 18-year-old man was critically injured early Wednesday morning when he was shot by police.
Nixon said he hoped that the city would see a decrease in violent clashes between protesters and officers as a result of the change. "I think you'll see as the afternoon and evening starts, a little different picture and our hope is that that will begin," he said.
Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson wouldn't get into specifics when asked whether officers would patrol the streets with armored vehicles and other military-style equipment Thursday evening. Officers will make an assessment Thursday, he said, to "make sure we're not taking resources out there that we don't need, but when we do need those resources they will still be here."
Johnson said he would be on the streets himself tonight. He said he will stop by the QuikTrip in Ferguson, which "has been called 'Ground Zero,' " to meet with protesters and listen to their concerns.
When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called on the St. Louis County police to ask about its apparent pending removal earlier Thursday, the department said it was unaware it was being relieved of its duties.
Officials in Ferguson still have not released the name of the officer who shot Brown and Nixon told reporters Thursday that he personally was unaware of the officer's name. "I'm not conducting investigations," he said.
Nixon thanked local police officers for their work in recent days and said that the highway patrol will be lead by Johnson, who grew up in the area.
"I know that Ferguson will not be defined as a community torn apart by violence, but will be known as the community that pulled together to overcome it. Today we renew our commitment to bring peace to the families of Ferguson. Today we commit to ensuring the safety and security of our communities and making sure they are served with justice and respect by their leaders," Nixon said.
Earlier Thursday, Nixon spoke in a meeting with residents at a church in Florissant, a neighboring suburb of St. Louis. "There is a certain level of emotion that must be expressed in order for us to reach a higher plane, and my sense is that over the last few days there has been a fear to hear," Nixon told residents at the church. "A fear to hear, not just about this action, but about how it fits in a much longer and broader context of a deeper march to justice."
Nixon also pushed back on police's treatment of the media in the city, after reporters for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post were arrested yesterday. Two National Journal reporters were also threatened with arrest. Nixon said the city needed to allow members of the media to do their jobs, to show the truth of what is happening in Ferguson—although he joked that he wished they'd make him look "younger and skinnier" as well. The city must make sure, he said, that "in these transitions, regardless of what we look like, that the true emotion is not tamped down."
Nixon said that he spoke with President Obama earlier in the day about the situation in Ferguson.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri spoke briefly at the church gathering before Nixon's arrival, calling for the demilitarization of local police. "This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution," the Democrat said.
McCaskill's office said that she will be meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder later Thursday to discuss the response in Ferguson. The senator also said she has met with young people in the city and was giving out her personal cell-phone number to Ferguson residents. "I expect it to be used so that I can be called to the task, to do whatever I can possibly do," McCaskill said.
The role of state police varies by state. In Missouri, the statewide agency in charge of policing is the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Although its primary purpose is to "enforce the traffic laws and promote safety upon the highways," the Missouri State Highway Patrol investigates major crimes in the state and runs a crime lab, functioning as a full-fledged policing agency.
This post was updated at 4:37 p.m. to include comments from Gov. Nixon's press conference.