(CNN) — To people on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and many around the world who watched Wednesday night’s violence unfold, it seemed like a scene out of another country.
“They are now firing into the crowd,” a reporter is heard saying as loud blasts and fiery sparks show tear gas canisters apparently being shot by police. Screams follow.
“They’re firing rubber bullets,” a reporter with KARG Argus Radio is heard saying in a video of the events. “They’re attacking reporters; they are attacking civilians. They are firing up on the media.”
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said pepper bullets were used. A CNN crew also found spent crowd-control stun grenades lying in the street.
All the details of just what happened in the city Wednesday night amid protests over the shooting of an unarmed teen have yet to come in. Multiple law enforcement agencies from the city, county and state levels have been dispatched to calm the protests. In the chaos, it was not immediately clear which agencies did what exactly.
Ferguson Mayor Jay Knowles said Thursday that the St. Louis County police have been “in charge tactically since Sunday.”
Jackson said the actions of the law enforcement agencies were “based on the threat of violence.”
One officer was hit with a brick and broke his ankle, and another officer was injured as well, Jackson said.
“I’m at least happy that no (protester) was injured,” he added.
But some security experts say the police actions made things much worse.
“You’re in trouble when your SWAT team is on the front line of dealing with a civil disturbance,” retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said Thursday.
In 2005, Honore was dispatched to New Orleans to lead recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, when the federal government said it was facing “urban warfare.” Honore famously told police to lower their weapons and defused the tense situation.
“I’ve seen this done successfully in the past where you have your front line policemen on the front until people start throwing things. Then you have your riot control squads in the back,” Honore said on “CNN Newsroom” on Thursday. “The tactics they are using, I don’t know where they learned them from. It appears they may be making them up on the way. But this is escalating the situation.”
“Any time we have policemen pointing weapons at American citizens, they need to go through retraining,” Honore added. “And I think we are about 24 hours too late.”
Holder: Try to ‘reduce tensions, not heighten them’
President Barack Obama said Thursday that the Justice Department — whose civil rights division is investigating Michael Brown’s shooting — is “consulting with local authorities about ways that they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation.”
The head of that federal department, Attorney General Eric Holder, said in a statement that “the scenes playing out in the streets of Ferguson over the last several nights cannot continue.”
Some blame lay with protesters, he said. Even though “the vast majority … have been peaceful,” others have been marred by violence, looting and antagonizing of law enforcement.
Yet law enforcement’s aim should be to “reduce tensions, not heighten them,” he said. That means respecting “at all times” the rights of those gathered to express sympathy with Brown’s family as well as the ability of journalists to report the story. (Two reporters were detained and then released without charges Wednesday.)
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Holder added.
That same point was made by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who stressed Thursday the “need to demilitarize the solution.” She claimed that the police response “has become the problem instead of the solution.”
“I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety,” McCaskill said. “But my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right. Today is going to be a new start. We can and need to do better.”