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Less tear gas, more smiles: New top cop in troubled US town has friendlier touch

Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, left, answers questions as Gov. Jay Nixon listens during a news conference Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Nixon assigned protest oversight to Johnson, after violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

WASHINGTON – There’s a new, friendlier sheriff in a troubled U.S. town, and he’s working to quell angry crowds with some non-lethal weapons.

“You’re gonna see a bunch of smiles, a bunch of hugs, a bunch of conversations,” said Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, now the acting chief in suburban Ferguson, Mo.

Missouri’s state police have taken over enforcing the law in the restive suburb following the shooting of a black teenager. And the man temporarily in charge was already turning into a media star Friday, his first full day on the job.

He did so while promoting a radical shift in police tactics.

If the last few days were marked by smoke and wrath — tear gas, rubber bullets, sniper rifles pointed at crowds and the arrest of protesters, journalists, even local elected officials — this approach was a little more New Testament.

In fact, Johnson even quoted the gospels during Friday’s news conference, where he spoke to journalists and locals after his first night on the job in the community, where he has long-standing roots.

He proudly noted there had been no tear gas, roadblocks or arrests on his first night. Instead, he’d just walked and interacted with protesters.

“When I got home last night, my daughter said to me this: She says, ‘Daddy, were you scared?'” Johnson said.

“And I said, ‘Just a little bit.’ And she said, ‘Daddy, I want you to remember when Jesus asked Peter to walk with him on the water.’ And she said, ‘When Peter got scared, Jesus picked him up and said, “Have faith.”‘

“And I’m telling you today, we need to be just like Peter. I know we’re scared, and I know we’ve fallen, and he’s gonna pick this community up.”

People listening in the crowd started to cheer. The news conference started to resemble a town hall meeting, with passersby wandering over to ask him questions.

The pundits at Fox News appeared smitten.

“Leadership, thy name is Ron Johnson,” gushed one of the network’s analysts, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

“If Ron Johnson had been in charge from the beginning, we would be in a very different place. We wouldn’t even be talking about this… What Ron Johnson has done is take the mask off. He’s walked out there and he’s become a vulnerable guy, walking among the people… He’s walking out there and saying, ‘I’m vulnerable, too.'”

It couldn’t have been a sharper contrast with the approach of the last few days from the municipal police force.

Even Friday, anger deepened in the community against the Ferguson PD. Nearly a week after the shooting of Michael Brown, the department finally released the name of the officer who allegedly pulled the trigger: Darren Wilson.

At the same time, they released a video of Brown allegedly stealing cigars from a convenience store. In a statement, Brown’s family expressed outrage and wondered what that had to do with their son being fatally shot.

Ferguson’s long-standing police chief admitted the robbery was separate from the shooting. Thomas Jackson said the officer involved in the death had not been responding to the robbery call. He said he’d only released the video because media were asking for it.

The case has prompted calls for broader change in American policing.

In Washington, a Georgia Democrat promised to introduce legislation to curb what he called an increased militarization of police agencies across the country. Among Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul has led calls for the de-militarization of the police. There are also calls to scale back a program to send surplus military equipment to police, including armoured-personnel carriers and high-powered rifles.

There was also scrutiny about the fact that in a community that’s mostly black, the police force is almost entirely white.

And past incidents involving the Ferguson PD bubbled back to the surface. The Daily Beast reported on an incident five years ago in which the force allegedly arrested the wrong man.

Rather than being released, however, the man was allegedly beaten and ultimately charged with destruction of property — for bleeding on officers’ uniforms, according to the report.

Speaking of police uniforms, the new top cop described his as a symbol of service, protection and friendship. And when one local business owner became vocally critical of police, Johnson had a snappy reply.

“You said you have a barber shop,” he told the man. “Well, you know, every barber isn’t good.”