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Obama, Senators Weigh In on Missouri Shooting, Unrest

Obama, Senators Weigh In on Missouri Shooting, Unrest

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 14, 2014

President Obama has asked the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. -- an incident that has raised questions nationwide about race and justice in black communities, First Amendment rights, and the use of excessive force by police officers.

Lawmakers have also begun to weigh in on the killing and its aftermath. U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, and Rand Paul, a Republican of Kentucky, have called for the “demilitarization” of the police presence in Ferguson, where five nights of unrest and a police crackdown have played out.

In remarks made Thursday afternoon during his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Obama called for “healing” and “peace and calm” while noting that “emotions are raw” in the St. Louis-area community. It was his first public statement on the violence that has escalated in the days since the weekend shooting.

Events seemed to reach a fever pitch Wednesday night with the questionable arrests of several people, including two journalists, and local law enforcement’s use of tear gas against protesters. The tactical officers’ military-style garb and equipment have also triggered criticism.

Tensions between Ferguson residents and police have risen amid conflicting accounts of the killing, in which an unnamed police officer shot Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was unarmed.

“When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities,” Obama said in his public statement.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder briefed the president in person on Thursday. In addition to the investigative task given to Holder, Obama said he asked him to work with local officials to maintain safety in the community. Obama also spoke with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon by phone Thursday.

The president acknowledged that Americans have been disturbed by what they are seeing and hearing about the incident, and the turmoil that has followed, in the “heartland of our country.”

“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Obama continued. “And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Earlier this week, Obama called the death of Brown “heartbreaking.” The president has not weighed in on the issue of race, as he did notably last year after the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting.

Rand Paul, however, did. The libertarian-leaning senator and possible 2016 presidential contender -- who has been an advocate for drug sentencing reform -- wrote an op-ed for Time magazine on Thursday acknowledging “racial disparities” in the criminal justice system.

“Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them,” Paul wrote. “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”

He continued: “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”

Paul blamed Washington for what he described as the “militarization of our law enforcement.”

“It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime,” he wrote. “It is quite another for them to subsidize it.”

McCaskill said the response by police “has become the problem instead of the solution.” In a written statement, the Missouri senator said that “today is going to be a new start, we can and need to do better.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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