Calm prevails in Ferguson after shooting of police officers

People demonstrate across the street from the Ferguson Police Department, Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. Two police officers were shot early Thursday morning in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a protest following the resignation of the city's police chief in the wake of a U.S. Justice Department report. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Protesters called for calm but vowed to keep pushing for change in Ferguson a day after the shooting of two officers in front of the city’s police department heightened tensions in the St. Louis suburb.

Dozens gathered for a candlelight vigil Thursday night, where they expressed sympathy for the wounded officers. They also prayed for peace as Ferguson moves forward in the wake of a scathing Justice Department report on racial bias in its law-enforcement practices.

A larger crowd of about 200 protesters gathered later outside the police department, but the scene was a marked contrast to the previous night, when fights broke out before the shootings.

Some called for specific changes: the resignation of Ferguson’s mayor or the disbanding of the police department. Others were there to remember 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose shooting death by a Fergusonpolice officer in August made the city a national focal point.

“We’ll not be derailed in the pursuit of justice by anybody or anything that wants to get in our way,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a member of the state’s Ferguson Commission who led the prayer vigil at a public plaza in downtown Ferguson near the police department. “We refuse to stop.”

Officers from the St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol were summoned to bolster security but largely stood idle in the distance. The protesters had largely disbanded by 11:30 p.m. No arrests were made.

The shootings just after midnight on Thursday came as protesters had gathered after the resignation of the city’s embattled police chief. They marked the first time in more than seven months of tension in Fergusonthat officers were shot at a protest, and the bloodshed threatened to inflame the already fraught relationship between police and demonstrators.

Both wounded officers were released from the hospital Thursday, but St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar — who called the attack an ambush — said they could have been killed. One was shot in the right shoulder, the bullet exiting through his back. The other in the right cheek, just below the eye. The bullet lodged behind his ear.

Several people were taken in for questioning but were later released, and no arrests were made by late Thursday. The shots were believed to come from a handgun across the street from the police department.

The gunman may have fired from up to 120 yards away, a distance longer than a football field. 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.

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.”

In a statement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and the city council said that 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.”

The calls for healing and reconciliation weren’t received favorably by all. As participants gathered before the prayer vigil Thursday night, shouts of “white power” came from a passing pickup truck.

Brown’s August shooting by former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson prompted protests locally and across the nation, and tensions escalated in November after a county grand jury declined to prosecute Wilson. Justice Department investigators concurred with that finding in a report released March 4.

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

Police Chief Tom Jackson’s resignation on Wednesday marked the sixth departure or firing in the week since the release of that 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.

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Associated Press videographer Jill Craig, photographer Jeff Roberson and writer Jim Suhr in Ferguson, Missouri; writer Jim Salter in St. Louis; and writers Eric Tucker and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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