Obama Calls Michael Brown Tragedy 'Heartbreaking'

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama weighed in Tuesday with his first public comments on the shooting of an unarmed African American teenager by a police officer, a controversy that has gained nationwide attention and sparked days of protests in the St. Louis suburb where the altercation took place.

On Aug. 9, Michael Brown, 18, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The Ferguson Police Department has said that Brown assaulted the officer, whose name has not been released. Eyewitnesses, however, have disputed that claim and said Brown was killed while attempting to surrender or flee.

In a statement, Obama urged people to "talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds":

The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family and his community at this very difficult time. As Attorney General Holder has indicated, the Department of Justice is investigating the situation along with local officials, and they will continue to direct resources to the case as needed.

I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.

Since the shooting, the black community in Ferguson has held protests and vigils that have attracted hundreds. At least four people have been injured and 47 people have been arrested so far, according to KMOV in St. Louis, and looting and vandalism have been reported in the area.

The police response to the protests has caused controversy, with one officer caught on video calling the protesters "fucking animals" and another seen throwing tear gas at residents in their own backyards.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the shooting deserves a full review, and the Justice Department has already dispatched its Community Relations Service to the scene to try to calm the racial tension, according to the Associated Press.

The Ferguson Police Department had initially promised to release the name of the officer who shot Brown by midday Tuesday, but the department backtracked, saying it was concerned about threats to its officers.

Most of Ferguson's residents are African American but very few of its public officials are. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Ferguson's police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black, said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson."

Black residents are disproportionately pulled over by police in Ferguson. Whites make up about one-third of the city's population but accounted for just 12.7 percent of traffic stops by Ferguson police last year. African-Americans made up 93 percent of the arrests following those stops, yet whites were more likely to be caught with contraband.

The Brown tragedy has brought back memories of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin was an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said after his death. "I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."