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Missouri clashes put America’s heavily armed police under the microscope

From the churches of suburban St. Louis to the White House, U.S. officials were calling for calm on Tuesday as protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black teen have frayed Americans' relationship with law enforcement.

Clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., over 18-year-old Michael Brown's death continued Wednesday, when police shot and critically wounded a man they say drew a handgun. Ferguson's protests, looting, public-property damage and the police's response – which has included tear gas, arrests and a 3,000-foot no-fly zone over the town – renewed questions about what some call the militarization of American police forces.

Here is what we know so far:

THE SHOOTING

  • What witnesses say: Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, said in a Tuesday interview with MSNBC that he and Brown were walking on the street when an officer drove up and told them to get onto the sidewalk. The two stayed in the street, telling the officer they were close to Johnson’s house. The officer then backed up his car and hit Brown while opening the door, and the officer reached out and grabbed Brown, then pulled his gun and fired. Brown “did not reach for the officer’s weapon at all,” Johnson said.

  • ckquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en">

    Lawyer for Dorian Johnson, eyewitness to #MichaelBrown shooting, tells me they will meet with both FBI and county prosecutor today #Ferguson

    — Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 13, 2014
  • ipt async="" charset="utf-8" src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js">
  • What police say: St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said Sunday that one of the two men shoved the officer into the car and assaulted him. In an ensuing struggle for the officer’s gun, the gun went off at least once inside the car, and the officer fired at the two while they were fleeing the scene, killing Brown.

The FBI has opened a civil-rights probe into the case, and St. Louis County is also investigating.

THE PUBLIC'S RESPONSE

A peaceful candlelight vigil for Mr. Brown was followed by several nights of street protests. Some have been peaceful, while others have included looting and property damage, with police confronting demonstrators armed with rifles and tear gas.

View a photo gallery of confrontations between police and protesters in Missouri

As of Tuesday night, more than 50 people had been arrested in connection with the protests.

THE POLICE RESPONSE

Images of police in riot gear on the streets of Ferguson have spurred debate about whether modern U.S. police tactics are too heavy-handed.

  • Greg Howard, Deadspin: “Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.”

  • Jay Caspian Kang, The New Yorker: “Anyone who stayed up late watching the police action in Missouri unfold saw things that did not seem, at least in theory, American. It’s long past time to ask what happens when we raise the threshold of what seems reasonable in a police deployment.”
  • Paul Szoldra, Business Insider: “If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

The clashes come two months after a report by the American Civil Liberties Association warning that U.S. state and local law enforcement has unprecedented access to military-style weapons and equipment, thanks in part to federal funding to fight a war on drugs. Peter Krasha of East Kentucky University's justice-studies school told The Economist that SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980, but now, they're deployed 50,000 times a year.

The ACLU report warned that "paramilitary" tactics were being used by police with little government oversight, and that racial minorities were disproportionately targeted in drug searches and SWAT raids.

In Ferguson, some two-thirds of the town's 21,000 residents are black, compared with only three out of 53 members of the town's police force.

THE CALL FOR CALM

  • Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr.: “I need all of us to come together and do this right, the right way. No violence.”

  • U.S. President Barack Obama: “I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but … I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding.”

  • ckquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en">

    "The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking." —President Obama. Read the full statement: http://t.co/PMwsBGqbQB

    — Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 12, 2014
  • ipt async="" charset="utf-8" src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js">
  • Civil rights leader Al Sharpton: “To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was.”

OTHER CASES

On Monday, an unarmed 24-year-old black man was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles. Family members said the man, identified as Ezell Ford, was complying with officers' orders, the Los Angeles Times reported. Police and family have not said whether the man was armed.

The deaths are drawing some comparisons to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman was later acquitted of murder.

With reports from Reuters and Associated Press

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