With tensions running high after the shooting of two officers in Ferguson, Missouri, state and county police are once again taking over protest security in the St. Louis suburb.
St. Louis County Police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol will "assume command of the security detail regarding protests" at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET), St. Louis County Police said in a statement.
Ferguson Police will remain responsible for "routine policing services" in the city, the statement said.
The takeover comes less than a day after two police officers standing guard outside Ferguson police headquarters were shot in what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called an "ambush," spurring a manhunt for those responsible for targeting the line of officers.
"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."
The shots rang out shortly after midnight, at the end of a protest against the Ferguson Police Department. That department has been under fire since one of its officers, Darren Wilson, shot and killed black teen Michael Brown in August, and more recently since a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report came out documenting a pattern of racial discrimination.
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 about 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 bullet that hit him was still lodged behind his ear as of late Thursday morning.
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 the past 14 years.
Both men were treated and released from St. Louis' Barnes Jewish Hospital, according to a Thursday morning post on the St. Louis County Police's Facebook page.
The officers were standing next to each other when they were struck, Belmar said.
3 questioned by investigators
Authorities haven't indicated they know who shot the officers, though Belmar did say "several people ... have been very forthright with" investigators. Police have also recovered shell casings that may be tied to the shooting.
Heavily armed officers converged on one Ferguson home as part of the investigation, St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said. Video from CNN affiliate KMOV showed three of them trying to pry a hole in the roof, while others went through the front door of the one-story residence.
By late morning, when the operation was over, two men and one woman were being questioned by police, according to Shawn McGuire, another police spokesman. McGuire said no one was officially in custody in the case at that point.
It's not known what connection, if any, the shooter or shooters had to Wednesday night's protest.
Belmar noted this isn't the first time gunshots have rung out in and around demonstration sites since the protests began. It is the first time, though, that an officer has been hit.
"I think it's a miracle that we haven't had any instances similar to this over the summer and fall, (given) the amount of gunfire," said the chief.
'Muzzle flashes ... about 125 yards away'
At its peak, some 150 protesters congregated Wednesday night in front of the Ferguson police station, Belmar said. That number had fallen by about half, with the chants over, when gunfire erupted.
The shots came from a hill overlooking the station, according to witnesses. Belmar said officers saw "muzzle flashes ... about 125 yards away."
One demonstrator, DeRay McKesson, told CNN he has no "indication that leads me to believe that ... a protester ... did it," saying he and fellow demonstrators believe in nonviolence.
Belmar believes someone targeted the police, who have braved 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.
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."
'Armed phalanx of officers'
One irony is that, for some protesters, Wednesday was a day to celebrate: They'd called for Jackson's resignation for months, and finally it was happening.
But for others, it was not enough. That's why they congregated in Ferguson, to demand changes like disbanding the city's entire police department and ousting Mayor James Knowles. The now familiar racial overtones hung over the protests, a product of the fact that Brown was African-American and Wilson is white, along with the DoJ report on Ferguson.
Some chanted, "Racist cops have got to go." Others held signs with slogans like "They don't really care about us!" and "Black lives matter."
"It was a great group (with) great, great energy," protester Markus Loehrer said.
Three were arrested in a crowd Belmar characterized as agitated and "pretty rowdy" at times, though McKesson said one fight that occurred had nothing to do with the protests. About 70 law enforcement officers from multiple departments came in to stand in front of the station, as they have on many other nights -- with the turnout of demonstrators the highest since the November grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, albeit smaller than the days immediately after Brown's death.
These protesters were in the process of leaving when gunfire erupted "no less than 100 feet" away, Kayla Reed said. McKesson, at the base of the hill where he and others say the bullets came from, heard about four shots.
Several police gathered around their wounded comrades, while others took cover and drew their guns.
"It was kind of shocking to see this armed phalanx of officers to immediately pull their weapons," Loehrer said.
'Very difficult' environment
So what happens next?
There's the manhunt, of course. And then there's the likelihood of more protests -- and the possibility of more violence as well.
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?
Loehrer worried that the shooting will undercut the protesters' 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."