FERGUSON, Mo. — Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to begin a withdrawal from this small city Thursday, signaling that the authorities believed they had largely restored order after nearly two weeks of unrest set off by the police shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man.
The move came after two nights of calm marked by none of the clashes between the police and protesters that had been a regular occurrence since the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown. In a statement, Nixon said the situation had “greatly improved with fewer incidents of outside agitators interfering with peaceful protesters and fewer acts of violence.”
In Washington, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who had ordered a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting soon after it took place, indicated that the federal effort was moving forward. “It’s going to take time for us to develop all the facts, develop all the evidence and see where the case will ultimately go,” he said. “It’s most important that we get it right.”
Federal prosecutors, however, face significant obstacles to bringing civil rights charges in the shooting, officials said Thursday, a reflection of both the unclear nature of the case and the strict standards of federal law.
The authorities said that, whatever their investigation concluded, the Justice Department expected to deliver a detailed report into the shooting, a move that indicated the emotional nature of the case and the department’s view that it could the offer the public a thorough, independent review of the facts.
Nixon originally sent the National Guard to Ferguson on Monday after curfews and shifting police tactics failed to quell the unrest that brought nightly demonstrations by peaceful protesters chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” but also violent clashes and looting.
The announcement that the National Guard would be slowly moved out was met with relief here from residents and officials who said they were finally, tentatively seeing widespread calm.
Nixon’s appearances throughout Thursday reflected a city recovering from a crisis, not in the middle of one. He visited teachers and administrators at a small university in St. Louis, stopped by a public library and met a small group of residents for coffee at the Corner Coffee House in Ferguson.
Only seven arrests were made overnight Wednesday, said Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County police, who added that the department had made 204 arrests relating to the protests since Aug. 9.
A sizable but peaceful crowd gathered at the site of Brown’s death on Canfield Drive. The Original Red’s BBQ, a restaurant on West Florissant Avenue that had been damaged and boarded up all week, was doing a brisk business Thursday afternoon. After dark, demonstrators marched without incident along the stretch.
Still, officials were acting cautiously, aware that the peace was tenuous, that the mood could change. Nixon said the withdrawal of the National Guard would be “systematic.”
In another effort to keep the area under control, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department released a cellphone video taken by a witness showing the separate shooting of a black man by the police in nearby St. Louis on Tuesday. In contrast to the slow reaction by officials in Ferguson to the shooting of Brown, Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief, went to the scene of the shooting to provide information to the public.
Dotson said Thursday that the video taken by the bystander confirmed the Police Department’s version of events — that two officers were confronted by Kajieme Powell, 25, who was behaving erratically and brandishing a knife, and that they shot and killed him after he moved closer, ignoring repeated warnings that he should drop the knife.
Although the video showed the man walking toward the officers and saying, “Shoot me now,” it was unclear whether the knife was raised when he was shot. The chief said that at least 12 shots could be heard in the video.
Dotson said the police released the video in the interest of transparency. “I don’t think any of us can deny that the tension, not only in St. Louis but around the country and the world because of the activity in Ferguson over the last 10 or 12 days, certainly has led to us making sure that we got this right,” he said.
Since the shooting of Brown, two separate investigations have been underway. As the federal authorities look into whether the police in Ferguson violated civil rights, the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, has started to present evidence regarding the shooting of Brown to a grand jury.
Some have called for McCulloch to recuse himself from the case since his parents worked for the St. Louis police and his father was shot and killed by a black man. McCulloch has repeatedly said that he has no plans to recuse himself but that the governor, who has the power to remove him, should make his position known.
“We have begun presentation of evidence to the grand jury and will continue to do so in a fair, full and impartial manner,” McCulloch said Thursday in a statement. “However, the governor must settle this issue now. To leave this issue unresolved now leaves the possibility of exercising this power at a later date, which will cause a significant and unwarranted delay in the resolution of the investigation and resolution of the case.”
A spokesman for the governor said Thursday night that Nixon would not ask McCulloch to step aside.
The Justice Department has also been continuing its investigation. But for the federal government to bring charges, it will need to prove that the police officer, Darren Wilson, intended to violate Brown’s civil rights when he opened fire and that he did so willfully — meaning he knew it was wrong but fired anyway.
“That’s a high hurdle,” said Craig B. Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor. “It’s different from saying, ‘He shouldn’t have shot him.’ It’s different than sheer negligence. It’s saying that he intended to violate this young man’s civil rights.”
Two federal law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly, said the federal investigation had not concluded whether Wilson’s shooting qualified as excessive and willful.
The police are given wide latitude when deciding when to use deadly force. The Supreme Court has ruled that officers must have probable cause to believe they face the threat of serious injury or death.
Witnesses have given conflicting accounts of Brown’s shooting. Many agree that it began with a struggle between the officer, who was in his patrol car, and Brown, who was leaning in through an open window. Eventually, Wilson got out of the car — some witnesses say his gun went off inside the car — and Brown ran away.
Witnesses differ over the final moments, however. Some say Brown charged at the officer. Others say he was not moving and may have had his hands up in surrender.
The local authorities and the county grand jury are trying to sort out those conflicts as they decide whether to file state charges. The discrepancies add another level of complexity for federal investigators, who take an officer’s situation into account when deciding whether a shooting was willful and excessive.
Justice Department officials, in conversations with civil rights groups, have sought to explain the limitations of their authority, though officials said that the discussions were not intended to signal the investigation’s direction.
Nearly half of the civil rights cases the FBI investigates are related to law enforcement officers who may have acted beyond their authority. In 2012, the FBI opened 380 such cases, accounting for 42 percent of all civil rights cases. Along with prosecutions for using excessive force, civil rights charges can include sexual assault, making false arrests, fabricating evidence and destroying property.
Normally, after a civil rights investigation, the Justice Department summarizes its findings in court documents or, if the case ends without charges, the authorities release a short statement closing the matter. In this case, the authorities said they expected to offer a full explanation of their decision-making regardless of the outcome.
In addition to the investigation into Wilson, Holder and top Justice Department officials are considering whether to open a broader civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. Officials are concerned about reports of other allegations of police abuse, including a 2009 case in which a man said that officers beat him, then charged him with damaging government property — by getting blood on their uniforms.
Such cases, known as “pattern or practice” investigations, have been one of the Justice Department’s tactics in addressing police discrimination. In April, the government accused the Albuquerque Police Department of a pattern of excessive force that routinely violated people’s constitutional rights. The police killed 23 people and wounded 14 others over four years.
But with prosecutors and FBI agents still working in Ferguson, and with tensions easing, a decision on whether to open that investigation risks inflaming the situation anew.
“There’s nothing I want to announce at this time in regards to that,” Holder said Thursday. “We are keeping all our options open.”
c.2014 New York Times News Service