Ferguson protests: Time and rain cool tempers; hunt on for shooting suspects

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FERGUSON, MO– Prayers went up, the rain came down and tensions cooled overnight in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was a far cry from 24 hours earlier, when tempers flared and two police officers took bullets in the St. Louis suburb.

Authorities changed tactics in the aftermath of the shootings.

St. Louis County Police said it had assumed “command of the security detail regarding protests,” together with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Ferguson Police remain responsible for “routine policing services” in the city.

Investigators believe they have identified two people they want to question in the shooting, and one of them might be the shooter, a law enforcement official said. Police are also trying to find anyone who may have helped the shooter get away.

Prayer vigil

A call for calm came at a Thursday night prayer vigil. Clergy and others gathered.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the injured officers,” a statement from vigil organizers said. “Our prayers are with these officers, their families, and every victim of violence in our streets.”

Although the streets were calm, the call for action remained the same.

“For over 200 days, hundreds of thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets to demand change. We must not forget — Ferguson is only one example of an endemic, national problem.”

Many in the vigil returned to the nearby protests, but the crowds were much smaller than the night before and the rain seemed to put a damper on emotions. No arrests were made, police said.

‘We could have buried two police officers’

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said several people “have been very forthright” with investigators, but authorities haven’t released the names of any possible suspects.

“We could have buried two police officers,” Belmar told reporters. “I feel very confident that whoever did this … came there for whatever nefarious reason that it was.”

3 questioned by investigators

Iresha Turner says police banged on her door in the middle of the night.

“I opened the door and stood back. I look at my chest, there’s a red dot on it,” she said. “I have my hands up, start crying. I said, ‘please, don’t shoot me.”

Turner was one of three people who were questioned for hours by investigators early Thursday and eventually released.

But they never saw the shooting and had no idea who opened fire, she said. Turner believes police questioned her because she was in a car of people who sped away after the shooting — not because they had anything to do with it– but because they were scared after hearing gunshots, she said.

It’s not known what connection, if any, the shooter or shooters had to Wednesday night’s protest.

‘Muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away’

The shots rang out from a hill overlooking the station shortly after midnight Wednesday, at the end of a protest against the Ferguson Police Department.

Officers saw “muzzle flashes … about 125 yards away,” Belmar said.

Protesters said they had nothing to do with the shooting, saying the demonstrators believe in nonviolence.

“As the protest was dying down, someone, somewhere got violent. Now who they were and what group they were affiliated with, we don’t know,” said Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman. “In no way are they representative of the thousands of people … who have been protesting.”

In the cross hairs

Belmar believes someone targeted the police, who have faced heated criticism for months, for a reason. “These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers,” he said.

That department has been under fire since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, shot and killed African-American teen Michael Brown in August, and more recently since a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report documented a pattern of racial discrimination. Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned from his post Wednesday.

While the demonstrators’ focus was Ferguson, neither of the wounded officers works in that St. Louis suburb’s Police Department.

One is from Webster Groves, a city 13 miles south of Ferguson. The officer — a 32-year-old with seven years’ experience — was shot at the high point of his cheek, just under his right eye, Belmar said.

The other wounded officer was hit in the shoulder and the bullet came out the middle of his back, Belmar said. He is a 41-year-old from St. Louis County Police who has been in law enforcement for 14 years.

Both men were treated and released.

‘This was a damn punk’

Brown’s parents condemned the shooting as “senseless,” saying such violence against law enforcement will not be tolerated.

So did the White House, with a tweet signed with President Barack Obama’s initials offering prayers for the wounded officers and calling “violence against police … unacceptable.”

And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting and unrest that spurred, decried what happened as a “heinous and cowardly (and) repugnant attack.”

“What happened last night was a pure ambush,” Holder said. “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk who was trying to sow discord.”

What’s next?

There’s the manhunt. And then there’s the likelihood of more protests and the possibility of more violence.

Even though Jackson, City Manager John Shaw, Ferguson’s top court clerk and two police officers are gone or on their way out, some activists are vowing to keep pressing for change.

“We aren’t satisfied with this,” Reed said of the police chief’s exit. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not what total justice looks like in Ferguson.”

Jackson expressed optimism that, in his view, the Justice Department report concluded that Ferguson “can do the tough work to see this through and emerge the best small town it can be.”

But what are the prospects after Thursday’s shooting?

Protester Markus Loehrer worried that the shooting will undercut their message against discrimination and violence.

“It’s a shame that somebody had to take advantage of this great group,” he said, “to do something so despicable.”

And Belmar said it underscores the fact that, eight months after Brown’s death, the streets of Ferguson are still simmering and law enforcement officers there are on edge.

“This is beginning at times to be very difficult for any law enforcement agencies, anywhere, to really wrap their arms around,” he said. “I want everybody … to understand how difficult this is.”

By Ed Payne

CNN’s Sara Sidner, Greg Botelho, Catherine E. Shoichet, Holly Yan, Joe Sutton, Sara Sidner, Jason Carroll, Shimon Prokupecz, Evan Perez, Don Lemon and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.