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Police chief says finding shooter is 'number one priority'

Two police officers were shot during a rally in Ferguson, Missouri overnight.

FERGUSON, Missouri — SWAT teams swarmed a house on Dade Avenue here around midday and detained people for questioning as law enforcement continued their search for a gunman who shot and injured two police officers at a demonstration late Wednesday night. The two officers, one of whom sustained a bullet wound to the face, were released from the hospital Thursday morning, NBC News reported.

St. Louis County police confirmed that people had been taken in for questioning as "part of the investigation into the events from last night," but said no arrests had been made yet. A neighbor told NBC News that three individuals were seen being taken away in handcuffs. 

St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar said Thursday that the two officers shot overnight "took a very hard hit." He called the shooting an "ambush" and said it threatens both police and their ability to protect those exercising their right to protest.

"We're lucky, by God's grace, that we didn't lose two officers last night," he said in a press conference hours after the two officers were shot, amid growing unrest in the St. Louis suburb, where the resignation of embattled Police Chief Thomas Jackson -- and the devastating Justice Department report that prompted it — sparked demonstrations anew in the community.

Later in the day, the city of Ferguson released a statement offering "gratitude" to all law enforcement agencies that have aided the community over the past several months.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the officers and their families who were injured last night," said Mayor James W. Knowles III and the Ferguson City Council in a statement. "This act of violence against police and residents has no place in our community or our country."

Beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, the St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol -- rather than the Ferguson Police Department -- is to assume command of the security detail surrounding protests in the city. Mayor Knowles was made aware of the transition, according to a press release from the St. Louis County Police.

Related: Embattled Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson resigns

One officer, described by authorities as a 41-year-old man and 14-year veteran of law enforcement from the St. Louis County Police was shot in the shoulder. The bullet exited out his back and Belmar said the man was in a lot of pain. The second officer, a 32-year-old and 7-year veteran from nearby city Webster Groves, was shot in the cheek; dramatic photos of his bloodied helmet were posted on Facebook on Thursday morning. 


"We were very close to having an incident like the NYPD had," Belmar said, referencing the execution-style shooting death of two officers in New York late last year. "We could have buried two police officers next weekend."

Finding the shooter is the police's "number one priority," Belmar said, adding that they had some leads but no specific suspects yet. He repeatedly said that while he understood people's right to protest, the incident had made it harder for police to work in that situation.

"I’m not blaming anybody other than the individuals that shot my officers, but I am telling you that these situations are very difficult to navigate through when you're a police officer doing everything you can do to protect people’s First Amendment rights," Belmar said.

The shootings come on the heels of a scathing Justice Department report, which last week found that the police had engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of police abuses and racism that violated federal law and the constitutional rights of African-American residents. The city manager and a judge resigned earlier this week; on Wednesday, Jackson announced his resignation. Jackson, whose resignation will take effect on March 19, received a year of pay in his severance.

The rally began around 8 p.m. local time, and the warmer weather, led to a longer night out in the streets. Many people joined the seasoned protesters to socialize, grill and drink nearby; there were roughly 150 people out during the peak of the rally, Belmar said, noting that it was unexpectedly a "rowdy" group, with some fights breaking out among people. There were three arrests, he added, of people who would not stay out of the street, but the rally and even police had begun to disperse close to midnight when the situation took a turn for the worse.

"All of a sudden, pop, pop, pop from across the street up on the hill," NBC News producer Jennifer Roller recounted. "Most of us thought it was firecrackers, but the police and everyone hit the deck, the police yelled to get down, get down."

Freelance photographer Bradley Rayford said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday he saw the muzzle fire coming from the hill, as well, confirming what other witnesses told The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal that the shots did not come directly from the protesters.

Rayford said the protest was "pretty textbook as far as Ferguson protests go" so it was "completely unexpected how it ended."

"This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson, this was a punk -- a damn punk" Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday afternoon. "This really disgusting and cowardly attack might have been intended to unravel any sense of progress but I hope that doesn’t happen."

The incident has been nationally condemned, including a Tweet from the president. 

The rally began just hours after Jackson announced his resignation and became the fifth city official to lose their job.

“I’m confident the city will pull through these trying times,” Jackson told NBC News shortly after the city announced his resignation. “The people are committed to Ferguson.”

Jackson has been an icon since Michael Brown's shooting death in August, for mishandling the situation -- Brown's body was left in the street for hours -- and violently suppressed the protests that came later. Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year, who was shot and killed last August by a white police officer. During the heat of the protests last August, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon put St. Louis County police and later Highway Patrol in charge of the suburb's daily protest control.

But Jackson held onto his job until the release of the Justice Department report, which found troubling disparities in the use of force against blacks, targeted and excessive arrests, the use of racial slurs by officials on official email, and a scheme supported by the municipal courts that used the fining of black residents to bolster the city’s revenue.

Still, not everyone felt Jackson's resignation was enough and the calls for Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III to step down have grown.

“It’s a nice next step after the resignation of the city manager, but it’s still not enough. Anything short of the mayor’s resignation to change the tone and deal with the city is not enough," state. Rep. Courtney Curtis said, whose district includes Ferguson, said. “Leadership truly sets the tone and to say that people did all of this without the mayor knowing does not make sense. And as of right now, the mayor still controls the council and that gives him control over the city manager."

During the press conference announcing Jackson's resignation, Knowles — who had been lambasted for initially stating that Ferguson didn’t have any problems with race before walking back the comment — said he had no plans to leave office.

“Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship, and I have been committed, the city council has been committed to making those reforms,” Knowles said. “I realize that there are some people that still want a head, or my head, or other heads, and I can understand if they want to say that. Again, we are focused on how we can move this community forward.”

Related: 11 alarming findings in the report on Ferguson police

The shooting is the latest in eight months of on-and-off protests and unrest in the wake of the shooting of Brown. Since his death—and the subsequent investigation and the grand jury decision not to charge the officer who shot him—Ferguson has become both an icon for the national protest movement against racism and police brutality. 

The events in Ferguson helped spark a protest movement across the country -- often under the slogan "black lives matter," as activists list Brown's name with many others who died at the hands of police, like Eric Garner, a Staten Island man killed by police who placed him in an apparent chokehold. 

“I don’t think that is typical of what happens across the country, but it’s not an isolated incident,” President Barack Obama said last week of the Justice Department's findings in Ferguson. “I think there are circumstances in which trust between communities and law enforcement have broken down, and individuals or entire departments may not have the training or the accountability to make sure that they’re protecting and serving all people and not just some.”

"This shooting is a criminal act that jeopardized the lives of police officers and protesters both. I hope the officers have a full recovery and pray for them and their families. It's time for healing and reform, and acts of violence have no place in this process," Missouri's Sen. Claire McCaskill said Thursday morning.

Brown's family condemned the shooting, urging protesters not to be derailed by the violence of another.

"We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement. It cannot and will not be tolerated," they wrote. "We specifically denounce the actions of stand-alone agitators who unsuccessfully attempt to derail the otherwise peaceful and non-violent movement that has emerged throughout this nation to confront police brutality and to forward the cause of equality under the law for all."

Jane C. Timm and Emma Margolin contributed reporting from New York.