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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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Policing protests

From an editorial published in Friday’s Washington Post:

From the chief of the police department to the president of the United States, government officials on Thursday promised a different approach to the racially charged unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. But the situation demands a lot more than a stand-down by assault-rifle-toting police. It might require an act of Congress.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said officers would “facilitate” protests, which began on Sunday after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager on Saturday. President Barack Obama assured the country that the FBI and the Justice Department were keeping a close eye on how local officials were handling the investigation and the street demonstrators. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon officially relieved the St. Louis County Police, the principal authority on the ground in Ferguson, and put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge.

That was justified in light of what Attorney General Eric Holder termed “unnecessarily extreme displays of force.” Nothing justifies looting or assaulting police, but law enforcement officers in Ferguson did not need to respond to mostly peaceful protests by deploying armored vehicles, pointing sniper rifles at civilians and tossing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets liberally into crowds. These tactics have been an affront to a community that needs to be heard, not suppressed.

We are glad to see that several successive nights of chaos seem to have snapped state and local leaders to attention. But they should have reacted days ago. Instead, they let angry feelings in Ferguson, already festering in a mostly African American town with a white-dominated police force, expand further. Police can only do their jobs if they have a basic level of trust from the community they are charged with protecting.

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