FERGUSON, Mo. — The federal government on Sunday took on an intensified role in investigating the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, as Missouri officials defended their tough response to continuing protests and looting in this St. Louis suburb.
Attorney General Eric Holder issued a terse statement ordering an independent autopsy of Michael Brown by a federal medical examiner — the third autopsy of the 18-year-old. The Justice Department took the action in response to what spokesman Brian Fallon called ‘‘the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case’’ and requests from Brown’s family. Brown was killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
Following a chaotic Saturday night marked by gun violence, clouds of tear gas and the deployment of armored vehicles on Ferguson’s streets, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, D, stood behind his decision to order a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew. The shooting of Brown has made the town of 21,000 the epicenter of a national debate about race, justice and the use of force in African-American communities.
‘‘Last night’s curfew — I think everybody worked well,’’ Nixon said Sunday on CNN’s ‘‘State of the Union.’’ ‘‘We’re always disappointed when things aren’t perfect. But thousands of people spoke last night, thousands of people marched, and [there was] not a single gunshot fired by a member of law enforcement last night.’’
Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who is overseeing security in Ferguson and had earlier mingled with protesters, took a new tack Sunday, calling the police response ‘‘proper’’ and saying he was ‘‘disappointed’’ in the actions of the demonstrators. The curfew was expected to be extended into Sunday night, as Nixon had not revoked his standing executive order imposing one.
At a rally Sunday evening at Greater Grace Church in Ferguson, Michael Brown Sr. wore a T-shirt that said, ‘‘No Justice No Peace.’’ It had a photo of his son as a baby on the front. The church was packed to overflowing, and cars were lined up outside for more than a mile.
Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the family, said that Michael Brown’s parents did not want to speak.
‘‘It is just a heavy heart they've been dealing with,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody volunteers this position. Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be the mother of a child executed in broad daylight.’ No matter how they try to distract us, we know there was an execution.’’
A man who identified himself as a family member said that Brown ‘‘was a son and uncle and nephew. He was not alone, but that is how he was killed. This was the last act our family member made before he was put to rest.
‘‘This,’’ he added, putting his hands up in the air, ‘‘this will be stuck in our family’s memories for all our lives.’’
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the rally, said the family is calling for the federal government to take over the case, ‘‘because if you look at what the police chief did, how can you trust the local authorities?’’
He told the crowd that the investigation will be a defining moment in the country’s justice system.
‘‘In all my life, I've never seen anything more despicable than the police chief releasing a tape to disparage Michael Brown’s name while his mother is still weeping,’’ Sharpton said, referring to a convenience store security tape that police said showed Brown stealing cigars.
‘‘This young man hadn’t even been buried. Then they come out and say [the incident] had nothing to do with the shooting. Then why did you put it out? I saw the tape of a young man who might be shoplifting. There’s a difference between robbing and shoplifting. This issue is not whether he shoplifted. The issue is about a young man with no due process who was shot multiple times.’’
In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama was briefed Sunday morning on the events in Ferguson and was scheduled to receive another briefing Monday morning from the attorney general.
The federal investigation of Brown’s death will take into account the autopsy performed by state medical examiners, in addition to the procedure ordered by Holder, Justice Department officials said. According to federal law enforcement officials, Brown’s family also paid for an autopsy by Michael Baden, a medical examiner who was featured in the HBO show ‘‘Autopsy.’’ Baden has consulted on investigations relating to the deaths of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and actor John Belushi.
Holder’s announcement was the latest signal that the federal civil rights investigation of Brown’s death is escalating. Dozens of FBI agents are going door-to-door in Ferguson to interview anybody with information about the shooting.
The federal probe is running parallel to the state investigation, and federal officials said last week they were deferring, for now, to state officials.
The new developments came after a Saturday night in Ferguson that ended with a shooting victim, seven arrests and a heavy early morning rain that finally helped clear the streets.
Johnson said early Sunday that a large force was deployed amid the curfew and protests after police received a report that an unknown assailant had shot a person.
Officers had learned through intelligence sources that a group of armed protesters was holed up in a barbecue restaurant. He said that by the time police arrived, the shooting victim, whom Johnson did not identify, had been taken to a hospital by protesters. The victim was in critical condition, Johnson said.
Tear gas was fired, he said, after officers spotted a man with a handgun in the middle of the street. The man with the gun fled, and officers did not arrest any armed protesters. However, seven people were arrested and charged with ‘‘failure to disperse,’’ he said.
A shot was fired at a police car, Johnson said, though it was unclear whether the vehicle was hit.
When the five-hour curfew ended Sunday at 5 a.m., the streets were quiet. But less than an hour after the curfew had begun, police were battling protesters in the streets where Brown was killed.
Hundreds of protesters stood in the middle of Ferguson’s main avenue under heavy rain early Sunday, minutes after the curfew went into effect at midnight. The crowd chanted, ‘‘No justice, no curfew!’’ and ‘‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’’
At 12:41 a.m., police shouted over a loudspeaker: ‘‘You are violating a state-imposed curfew. You must disperse or you will be subject to arrest or other actions.’’
Some in the crowd left. Others shouted expletives at the police.
Then came disorder.
At 12:49 a.m., police fired tear gas canisters and devices that produced smoke. Protesters ran. Some were handcuffed. Shots were fired. Police sirens wailed.
By 1:30 a.m., a plume of smoke rose over West Florissant Avenue, the street where Brown took some of his final steps. The smell of smoke was in the air. Explosions erupted every 10 minutes or so — more canisters that made loud bangs.
Police in riot gear blocked the entrance to the main road. They held shields, pointed rifles and shouted for people to clear the road. Many dispersed. By 2:45 a.m., the police had turned much of Ferguson into a ghost town. A heavy downpour puddled on streets emptied of inhabitants. Two officers ran down West Florissant, shedding gas masks without breaking stride. The flashing lights of dozens of police vehicles reflected off the rain-slicked pavement.
‘‘This is not our community!’’ an onlooker said. She made a peace sign with her right hand, then talked of ‘‘revolution.’’ She wouldn’t give her name.
The confrontation early Sunday followed Nixon’s declaration on Saturday of a state of emergency and the overnight curfew. In a heated news conference, the governor told a group of shouting residents that order must be restored after days of protests.
Yet the renewed protests were apparently triggered by the actions of the authorities, who have been wrestling for days with how to balance public safety with the right of demonstrators to assemble. On Friday, Ferguson police had named Brown as the prime suspect in the robbery of a convenience store that occurred just before the shooting, and they released a video of the robbery. The footage showed someone they identified as Brown towering over and menacing a store clerk. The images were circulated nationwide and drew a sharp rebuke from Brown’s family.
The video’s release was criticized by the Highway Patrol and came over the objections of federal authorities, a law enforcement official said Sunday.The Justice Department had said that distributing the images would heighten tensions in the community, but Ferguson police released it anyway, the official said.
Nixon added his voice to that criticism Sunday, saying on CBS’s ‘‘Face the Nation’’ that the video’s release had an ‘‘incendiary effect.’’