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Federal judge rebukes St. Louis police for tactics used on protesters after ex-officer’s acquittal

Demonstrators are knocked down by police after the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley on Sept. 15. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

A federal judge has rebuked tactics used on protesters by St. Louis officers in September and issued an order blocking them from shutting down nonviolent demonstrations and using chemical agents on crowds in a retaliatory way.

At issue were the aggressive actions of police, dressed in riot gear, during the days of protests after the Sept. 15 acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, following a police chase in 2011. Stockley is white. During the protests, police at times used chemical weapons, such as paper spray, on demonstrators without warning.

On Sept. 17, they also used a controversial method called “kettling” to block people from leaving and round them up for mass arrests. Those arrested included a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and a Chicago-based photojournalist covering the protests as well as civilians who were not demonstrating. On that night alone, police forcibly arrested about 120 people some two hours after vandals smashed windows and overturned trash cans several blocks away.

In addition to charges that they were unnecessarily aggressive, police were widely criticized by civil rights leaders around the country for chanting “whose streets, our streets” while making some of the arrests.

St. Louis officers chant ‘whose streets, our streets’ while arresting protesters

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry on Wednesday issued a 49-page memorandum and a separate mediation order in response to a class-action lawsuit against the city filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of protesters, including Maleeha Ahmad and Alison Dreith, who were both pepper-sprayed without warning during demonstrations.

Perry largely rejected the tactics used by the police and wrote that based on the testimony and evidence given so far, the ACLU was likely to win its lawsuit.

In her preliminary injunction, Perry wrote that police cannot declare an “unlawful assembly” when people are engaged in “an expressive activity” that does not involve “an imminent threat to use force or violence.” Nor can police impede movement to punish people for “exercising their constitutional rights to engage in expressive activity.”

In denouncing the police tactics, she wrote:

This custom or policy permits officers to exercise their discretion in such a manner as to impermissibly curtail citizens’ first amendment rights of assembly and free speech based upon nothing more than a subjective determination by an officer that ‘we’re done for the evening,’ or when the content of the speech is deemed objectionable, or because an earlier assembly in a different location was declared unlawful.

The judge also said in similar instances, police could not use chemical agents, such as pepper spray, against people engaged in nonviolent activity without “probable cause to arrest the person” and without first issuing “clear and unambiguous warnings that the person is subject to arrest” and that “chemical agents will be used if they don’t comply with law enforcement commands.”

The acquittal of a white former police officer sparked protests in St. Louis on Sept. 16. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

After the ruling, Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement: “If St. Louis is to address its long-standing racial inequities, the community must be able to safely express its outrage and pain through nonviolent freedom of speech. We must use this as an opportunity to develop a collaborative approach to policing between the community and law enforcement.”

“We want to be treated like the Constitution says and not like terrorists,” said Cori Bush of the Frontline protest movement, the AP reported. “We’re only protesting injustice against the black community.”

Koran Addo, spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said that the city would “comply with the order,” according to the Associated Press. The city’s mayor and its interim police commissioner, Lawrence O’Toole, have asked the Justice Department to conduct an independent investigation of police actions.

O’Toole said the police officers will now be required on a monthly basis to read and sign off on a special order restating the rights of journalists, the Post-Dispatch reported. Cadets will also receive training on journalists’ rights at the police academy.

Following the arrest of its reporter, Mike Faulk, the Post-Dispatch said it pressed officials to put practices into place that allowed journalists to cover such events without fear of arrest. Faulk is still waiting to hear whether he’ll be charged with a crime.

“News media will be given every consideration by Department members so that they may perform their newsgathering function; however, they are not entitled to interfere with an officer’s performance of duty or the safety of citizens,” the city’s new order reads, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Gilbert Bailon, the newspaper’s editor, was quoted as saying, “We are hopeful this new approach will lead to a safe environment for all journalists to provide essential news coverage for the public.”

Read the judge’s order

Read the lawsuit

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