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Attorney General To Visit Ferguson As President Questions Police Use of Military Hardware

resident Barack Obama addressed issues in Ferguson on Monday.
Screen shot from PBS NewsHour

Being careful not to prejudge the case involving the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, President Barack Obama appealed to the residents of Ferguson to help restore peace and calm to neighborhood streets shrouded in recent nights by clouds of tear gas, glass shards, bricks and bullet casings. Obama said that he understands the anger of many in the community, but quickly added that violence only undermines rather than advances justice.

“Giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only services to raise tensions and stir chaos,” Obama said.

The president’s comments came during a briefing with reporters at the White House Monday, in which he announced that Attorney General Eric Holder would be visiting Ferguson on Wednesday. Holder will meet with personnel from the Department of Justice and FBI agents looking into the shooting as part of an independent federal civil rights investigation. Holder briefed Obama on the situation in Ferguson and on the federal criminal probe hours earlier in an Oval Office meeting with several other administration officials.

The president said he had spoken with both of Missouri’s U.S. senators and Gov. Jay Nixon about the situation in Ferguson and the federal investigation. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., released a statement shortly after the president’s comments. “I explained to the president that I’ve been pleased with my conversations with the attorney general and civil rights division regarding their helpful understanding that they aren’t taking over this investigation, but are conducting a parallel review of the events that led to Michael Brown’s death.” Blunt said.

Both Blunt and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., plan to join Holder on his visit to Ferguson. 

The president also touched on the rights of citizens to protest peacefully, excessive police force and the militarization of local law enforcement.

“There’s no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully,” Obama said.

Asked about the appropriateness of local law enforcement agencies acquiring unused military equipment, the president said that, following the terror attacks of September 2001, lawmakers in both parties began looking at the capability of state and local agencies to handle such events.  In the wake of the controversy in Ferguson, where police rolled out heavy former military vehicles, sniper rifles and combat grade body armor, the president said he believes there will be bi-partisan interest in re-examining the funding of such programs and in seeing whether state and local agencies really need the equipment they’ve been receiving.

“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions,” said Obama.

The president also said he would be watching closely to see how the state uses National Guard troops.  Gov. Jay Nixon deployed members of the National Guard after protesters attempted to overrun a police command center Sunday night.

In an interview with CNN, Nixon said the mission of those troops would be limited to protecting the command center. “These are military police that are there for a narrow task and that task is to protect that command center,” said Nixon. The governor also says the troops will free-up state and local law enforcement officials, allowing them to connect with individuals in the community in hopes of restoring peace to Ferguson.  Nixon also lifted a curfew that had been in place for two nights.