FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a federal autopsy of a teenager shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, seeking to assure the family and community there will be a thorough investigation into a death that has sparked days of racially charged protests.
Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The police department in the St. Louis suburb has come under strong criticism for both the death of an unarmed man and its handling of the aftermath.
Seven protesters were arrested early on Sunday after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon imposed an overnight curfew aimed at quelling protests and looting. Police used canisters of smoke and later teargas to disperse the crowd, a Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman said.
Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, entrusted by the governor with restoring order, told hundreds of people gathered at a local church for a rally that he was committed to protecting their right to protest.
“I‘m sorry,” Johnson, who is black, told Brown’s family during remarks that prompted repeated standing ovations. “My heart is heavy.”
The rally was led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
Holder called for the federal autopsy, in addition to one being conducted by state medical examiners, “due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family,” Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said.
The family is also planning to have a pathologist conduct an independent examination of the body, a family spokesman said.
The early morning clash occurred when demonstrators remained in the streets after the curfew took effect at midnight. The seven people arrested had failed to disperse, police said.
A person was shot and critically wounded during the night. It was not clear why, and the shooter was still at large, police said. Johnson said police were unable to identify the victim, who he said was not shot by police.
Johnson also said someone had shot at a passing police car but was not apprehended.
The smoke and teargas canisters largely dispersed the crowd.
“It was the minimum amount of force that we could have used to get them moving,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Al Nothum. He said on Sunday the patrol did not know if the curfew would be extended for a second night.
Nixon said that in spite of the clashes, the curfew was a success and the community deserved credit. Speaking on
CNN’s news show “State of the Union,” the governor said he did not know how long the curfew would be in place.
He criticized the Ferguson police department for its decision on Friday to release a video that allegedly showed Brown taking part in a convenience store robbery shortly before the shooting. Police have said the officer who shot Brown had no idea he was a robbery suspect.
“I think it had an incendiary effect,” Nixon said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Police “clearly are attempting to besmirch a victim of a shooting,” he added.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson defended the release of the surveillance video, over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department. Jackson said he was complying with the news media’s requests for information in the case.
The decision to release the video while not giving details of the shooting only fuelled outrage. The clashes in Ferguson have pitted mostly black protesters against mostly white police in a residential and retail district.
President Barack Obama has been getting regular briefings while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, including from senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Jarrett spoke with Nixon on Saturday to get an update and offer the administration’s continued coordination and support with state and local officials, a White House spokesman said. Jarrett had also been in touch with civil rights leaders, including Sharpton and NAACP President Cornell Brooks over the last few days, he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Louis County Police department are investigating Brown’s death, which has been described differently by the police and by a friend who was walking with him at the time.
Police say that after Wilson asked Brown to move out of the road onto a sidewalk, Brown reached into the patrol car and struggled with Wilson for the officer’s service gun. Wilson, who sustained a facial injury, then shot Brown a number of times.
The friend, Dorian Johnson, 22, and at least one other witness have said the officer reached out through his car window to grab at Brown and the teenager was trying to get away from the officer when he was shot. Brown held up his hands in a sign of surrender but the officer got out of his patrol car and shot Brown several times, they said.
In Los Angeles on Sunday, civil rights activists and supporters of the family of another young black man shot dead by police, Ezell Ford, planned to rally outside LAPD headquarters.
The family of the 25-year-old said he was complying with officers and lying down when he was shot, and that he has mental challenges. The LAPD says he struggled with officers and was going for one of their guns when he was killed.
Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Frances Kerry