Police, other groups try to tamp down tensions in Ferguson

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Police, other groups try to tamp down tensions in Ferguson
20-year-old Jeffrey Williams has been charged with firing the shots that struck two police officers at a protest outside the police station in Ferguson. Williams has acknowledged firing the shots, but St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch says there is some evidence that indicates he may have been shooting at someone else.
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 14: Protestors march in silence during a Black Lives Matter protest in Saint Louis, USA on March 14, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 14: Protestors march in silence during a Black Lives Matter protest in Saint Louis, USA on March 14, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 14: Protestors march in silence during a Black Lives Matter protest in Saint Louis, USA on March 14, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 14: Protestors march in silence during a Black Lives Matter protest in Saint Louis, USA on March 14, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 12: Protestors gather and shout slogans in front of the Ferguson Police Department during ongoing protests after the Justice Department released their report exposing corruption in the police department and court system of Ferguson, USA on March 12, 2015. Officials, including the Chief of Police, have been forced to resign after the release of the report. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 12: A protestor lays down in the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department during ongoing protests after the Justice Department released their report exposing corruption in the police department and court system of Ferguson, USA on March 12, 2015. Officials, including the Chief of Police, have been forced to resign after the release of the report. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 12: Protestors hold banners in front of the Ferguson Police Department during ongoing protests after the Justice Department released their report exposing corruption in the police department and court system of Ferguson, USA on March 12, 2015. Officials, including the Chief of Police, have been forced to resign after the release of the report. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 12: Law enforcement officials secure the crime scene and continue to search for evidence outside the police station after two officers were shot and wounded during last night's protest on March 12, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Demonstrators had gathered outside the station to celebrate and protest after learning the city's police chief would be stepping down following the release of a Justice Department report that disparaged the department. Ferguson has faced many violent protests since the August shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 12: Police block off an area on South Florissant Road outside the Ferguson Police Department on March12, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Two police officers were shot and wounded in front of the Ferguson Police department overnight as protestors gathered after the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. Both officers were taken to hospital with serious injuries but were reported to be concious. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: A St. Louis County Police officer stands alert in riot gear during a protests outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Police officers stand on alert during a protests outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors hang a sign during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Children draw on the sidewalk with chalk outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: A protestor holds a sign during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Police in riot gear respond to demonstrators blocking traffic during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors hold up their hands in front of police car during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors demonstrate by sitting on a police car during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Protestors sit in the street outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - NOVEMBER 20: Ferguson Chief of Police Tom Jackson speaks to a television news crew across from the police station on November 20, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson police have been faced with months of sometimes violent protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. A grand jury is expected to decide this month if Wilson should be charged in the shooting. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 11: Police in riot gear respond to demonstrators blocking traffic during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department on March11, 2015 in Ferguson, MO. Protests erupted after the announcement of the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier in the day. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Ferguson officials are telling reporters that Thomas Jackson will step down as police chief by the end of the day, but we've heard that before.
City of Ferguson says resignation of Police Chief Thomas Jackson is effective March 19 http://t.co/JhqBrTa66U http://t.co/ku7KOYBEzq
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: Reverend Al Sharpton speaks during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown Jr., protest during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown Jr., protest during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 13: Thousands of protesters participate in the 'Justice For All' march against police violence on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Protesters held a rally at Freedom Plaza before marching to the U.S. Capitol. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Reverend Al Sharpton (R) and Lesley McSpadden (C-red hair), mother of Ferguson shooting victim Michael Brown, lead the 'Justice For All' march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014. Thousands of people descended on Washington to demand justice Saturday for black men who have died at the hands of white police, the latest in weeks of demonstrations across the United States. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 13: Thousands of protesters participate in the 'Justice For All' march against police violence on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Protesters held a rally at Freedom Plaza before marching to the U.S. Capitol. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - DECEMBER 13: People gather to protest against police violence during the national march after two grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York, on December 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 12: Denver School of the Arts student, Zamir Almazbek, draws I Can't Breath on the sidewalk at the City Park Pavilion December 12, 2014. Denver Public School students, organizers and supporters gathered at City Park and then marched towards downtown protesting police brutality in Ferguson, New York and Denver. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Michael Brown Sr. (L), the father of Ferguson shooting victim Michael Brown, stands with US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (C), D-New York, and Reverend Al Sharpton (R) during the 'Justice For All' march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014. Thousands of people descended on Washington to demand justice Saturday for black men who have died at the hands of white police, the latest in weeks of demonstrations across the United States. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Faith leaders from communities throughout New York City lead a demonstration and prayer vigil on the steps of City Hall in protest to the Staten Island, New York grand jury's recent decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July on December 12, 2014 in New York City. Protests and demonstrations have continued throughout the nation since the Grand Jury verdict was announced last week. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 15: A demonstrator rips an American flag during a protest outside the Ferguson police station on March 15, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. The St. Louis County prosecutor announced Sunday that Jeffrey Williams, a 20-year-old black male, was arrested for the shooting of two police officers who were working outside the Ferguson police station during a protest last week. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 15: Pro-police demonstrators argue with anti-police demonstrators during a protest outside the Ferguson police station on March 15, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. The St. Louis County prosecutor announced Sunday that Jeffrey Williams, a 20-year-old black male, was arrested for the shooting of two police officers who were working outside the Ferguson police station during a protest last week. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- With measured remarks and a conciliatory tone, police, political leaders and civil-rights activists on Thursday sought to tamp down tensions after two police officers were shot in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a protest.

The officers were quickly released from the hospital, but St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said they could have easily been killed and called the attack "an ambush." Meanwhile, people were taken in for questioning after a SWAT team converged on a Ferguson home near the shooting site. Police did not immediately offer details.

The shootings marked the first time in eight months of tension in Ferguson that officers were shot at a protest, and the bloodshed threatened to inflame the already fraught relationship between police and protesters just as the city seeks reforms in the wake of a withering Justice Department report on racial bias in its law-enforcement practices.

The attack also seemed to create another layer of race-related mistrust after a week in which an unarmed young black man was killed by a white officer in Madison, Wisconsin, and a University of Oklahoma fraternity chapter was thrown off campus after a video surfaced showing members singing a racist chant.

In Washington, President Barack Obama took to Twitter to relay his prayers to the officers and to denounce violence against police. "Path to justice is one all of us must travel together," Obama wrote, signing the tweet with his initials to indicate the president personally composed it.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the gunman was "a damn punk" who was "trying to sow discord in an area that was trying to get its act together, trying to bring together a community that had been fractured for too long."

The shots were fired early Thursday just as a small crowd of protesters began to break up after a late-night demonstration that unfolded hours after the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.

The shots were believed to come from a handgun across the street from the police department, which has been a national focal point since the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer.

The gunman may have fired from up to 120 yards away, a long distance for most pistols. But with a line of roughly 20 officers standing in front of the building, the shooter did not have to be particularly accurate to hit two of them, Belmar said.

"We're lucky by God's grace we didn't lose two officers last night," he said.

A 41-year-old St. Louis County officer was shot in the right shoulder, the bullet exiting through his back. A 32-year-old officer from Webster Groves was wearing a riot helmet with the face shield up. He was shot in the right cheek, just below the eye, and the bullet lodged behind his ear.

Tensions have been high in Ferguson since August and escalated in November after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to prosecute Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. Justice Department investigators concurred with that finding in a report released March 4.

But a separate Justice Department report released that same day found racial profiling in the Ferguson police force, and a municipal court system driven by profit, largely on the backs of black and low-income residents.

In the week after the report, Ferguson's court clerk was fired and the municipal judge, two police officers and the city manager voluntarily stepped aside. Wilson resigned in November.

John Gaskin III, a St. Louis community activist, speculated that the shooting was conducted by outside agitators intent on hijacking attention from peaceful, reform-minded protesters.

Activists "cannot afford these kinds of incidents happening, because that gets us absolutely nowhere."

In a statement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and the city council said, although they respect the right to protest peacefully, "we cannot continue to move forward under threats of violence and destruction to our community. We ask our residents and clergy in this area to partner with us as we make our way through this process."

Belmar said he reached out to civil-rights leaders, asking them to urge peace. He treaded lightly in response to questions about how police will prepare for other potential demonstrations, saying he would seek officers from other departments.

Officers from St. Louis County and the Missouri State Highway Patrol planned to take over protest security in Ferguson on Thursday evening.

Not everyone was conciliatory.

Jeff Roorda, spokesman for the St. Louis police union, said the shooting was evidence that many people are not satisfied with Jackson's resignation.

"What they wanted was to kill police officers, and that's what they tried to do," Roorda said.

He called for nighttime curfews. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said there are no plans to institute a curfew.

In amateur video of the shooting accessed by The Associated Press, two shots ring out and a man is heard screaming out in pain.

Someone at the scene, unseen and unidentified in the video, says: "Acknowledgement nine months ago would have kept that from happening."

Officers saw some alarming trends prior to the shooting, Belmar said.

Fist fights broke out among protesters. Rather than staying in one group in a parking lot across from the police station, demonstrators were spread out over a wide area. Some reportedly threw rocks and bottles. Three people were arrested.

Though the crowd was small compared with some earlier protests, with fewer than 200, Ferguson officers were concerned enough to ask officers from neighboring towns to assist. By 10 p.m., 69 officers had responded, Belmar said.

Some protesters said there was a different vibe than most nights.

"It was a very rowdy group," said Kristie Johnson, 32, who has been a frequent protester. "They were fighting each other. A lot of people out here tonight we haven't seen before."

Marciay Pitchford, 20, said she was near the street.

"All of sudden gun shots came through and everybody just started running," she said. "It seemed like they were just trying to shoot any police officer. It came from behind our heads."

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