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Police and protesters clash in St. Louis after former officer who shot black driver acquitted on murder charges

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

Demonstrators clashed with police officers Friday night in St. Louis after the acquittal of a white former police officer who was charged with murder last year for fatally shooting a black driver after a car chase.

In a video tweeted after midnight Saturday, St. Louis police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said at least 23 people had been arrested as of 6 p.m., and 10 police officers had suffered injuries, including a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder.

“Many of the demonstrators were peaceful. However, after dark, many agitators began to destroy property and assault police officers,” O’Toole said in a joint video statement with Mayor Lyda Krewson (D).

O’Toole said the protesters assaulted police with bricks and bottles, and officers responded by using tear gas and firing pepper-spray balls as a “less lethal option.”

Roughly 1,000 protesters descended on the mayor’s home, throwing rocks and breaking windows, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were met by about 200 police in riot gear who tried to disperse them with tear gas. The mayor did not appear to be home.

The night of violence began with peaceful demonstrations earlier in the day after a judge acquitted former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley for killing Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011.

In a court document submitted by the St. Louis circuit attorney, the investigator on the case said Stockley and another officer had been chasing Smith at speeds up to 80 mph when Stockley said he was “going to kill this motherf‑‑‑er, don’t you know it” and told the officer to drive into Smith’s slowing car.

The document said Stockley then approached Smith’s window and fired five times into the car, hitting Smith “with each shot” and killing him. In addition, prosecutors accused the officer of planting a gun on the victim: There was a gun found in Smith’s car, but it was later determined to have DNA only from Stockley.

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Judge Timothy Wilson, the circuit judge who heard the case in a bench trial, acquitted Stockley on the murder charge as well as a charge of armed criminal action in a 30-page order released Friday morning.

Wilson wrote that he was “simply not firmly convinced” of Stockley’s guilt, saying that “agonizingly,” he went over the case’s evidence repeatedly. Ultimately, Wilson said, he was not convinced that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense.”

Following the verdict, Smith’s mother, Annie, said the judge made the wrong decision.

“Justice wasn’t served. I can never be at peace,” she told Fox2Now.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stockley, 36, who relocated to Houston, acknowledged the hurt Smith’s family is feeling. “I know everyone wants someone to blame,” he told the newspaper, “but I’m just not the guy.”

When asked why he agreed to address the case, tears filled his eyes. “Because I did nothing wrong,” he said. “If you’re telling the truth and you’ve been wrongly accused, you should shout it from the rooftops.”

A West Point graduate who served with the Army in Iraq, Stockley said that his job as a St. Louis cop grew so dangerous, he began carrying unauthorized weapons with extra rounds.

“I accept full responsibility for violating the rules,” he said. “But it’s not a moral crime. It’s a rule violation.”

Local and state officials said they were prepared for potential unrest following the acquittal. Some schools in the St. Louis area were shuttered and events in the region were postponed as the verdict loomed.

In the afternoon, police used pepper spray on protesters blocking their path, while demonstrators smashed the front windshield of a police SUV, the Post-Dispatch reported.

On Friday night, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R), who had put the state’s National Guard on standby ahead of the verdict and potential protests, chastised those who engaged in violence, saying it “is not going to be tolerated here in the state of Missouri.”

Before the verdict was announced, Greitens stood with Christina Wilson, Smith’s fiancee, to deliver a joint message asking people to protest peacefully.

“If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel,” Wilson said at the news briefing. “And whatever comes to you, just do it in a peaceful way.”

Greitens, speaking after Wilson, urged people who felt pain after the verdict not to “turn that pain into violence.”

“One life has been lost in this case, and we don’t need more bloodshed,” he said.

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Neil J. Bruntrager, an attorney for Stockley, said in a telephone interview that the judge’s detailed opinion explaining the verdict was his “best effort in that regard to make sure people understand why he did what he did.”

The unrest has gripped the St. Louis region, which was rocked in 2014 when an officer in suburban Ferguson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.

That shooting prompted intense, sometimes violent protests, as did the decision months later not to indict that officer, Darren Wilson. The case, and the protests that followed, garnered worldwide attention and in many ways kick-started the nationwide focus on police officers’ use of deadly force, particularly against black men and boys.

Since Ferguson, police shootings or other uses of force — and decisions not to charge the officers in most of the cases involved — have set off heated protests in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Charlotte and other cities across the country.

Michael Brown Sr., whose son was shot and killed by police in 2014, says he's praying for the city of St. Louis. (Video: Reuters)

But the specter of Ferguson has lingered over St. Louis, which last month marked the third anniversary of Brown’s death. It has also fueled a change in the way local officials respond to shootings and potential protests, with officials in some cases hurrying to release information to avoid becoming “another Ferguson,” as one civil rights leader put it after a police shooting in his community.

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Krewson, the city’s mayor, said in a statement Friday she is “appalled” by what happened to Smith.

“I am sobered by this outcome,” she wrote. “I will continue my work to create a more equitable community.”

Before the verdict, activists in the St. Louis region pledged “mass disruption” should Stockley wind up getting acquitted, vowing the outcome would “look a lot like Ferguson.”

Demonstrators began gathering in the streets after the acquittal Friday, growing in size as the day wore on.

Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said Smith “died unnecessarily” in 2011.

“This region — and our country as a whole — have seen too many deaths caused by police, with little accountability for the officers or department involved,” Mittman said in a statement.

Smith’s death preceded the wave of police shootings and other uses of force that captured national attention recently. Stockley was ultimately charged last year after new evidence emerged from the St. Louis city police and the FBI, according to the circuit attorney, who did not disclose what that was. According to the circuit attorney’s office, the St. Louis police’s internal affairs investigators contacted them in March 2016 with this new evidence that ultimately made the prosecutor pursue charges.

Prosecutors said during the trial that they believe Stockley, who left the St. Louis police force in 2013, planted a gun on Smith after the shooting.

Attorneys for Stockley said the officer acted in self-defense because he feared that Smith was going to shoot him. When he testified, Stockley denied planting the gun in Smith’s car, saying he first touched it when searching the vehicle.

In his order acquitting Stockley on Friday, Wilson said he did not believe evidence supported the prosecution’s argument that the officer planted the gun.

Wilson outlined a history of the case, saying that Smith’s car crashed into a police vehicle before driving off. Stockley fired shots at Smith’s car before they pursued him in a high-speed car chase that Wilson said lasted three minutes, endangered drivers and pedestrians and was “stressful” for the officers involved.

According to Wilson’s account, which in part is based on the dashboard camera from the police car, Stockley approached Smith’s car with his hand on his holstered gun and then appeared to wrestle “with something or someone at the window.” Stockley is then seen drawing his gun and firing.

A medical examiner later said that Smith had been shot five times, with one bullet going through Smith’s heart, Wilson wrote. The medical examiner could not say whether Smith was reaching for anything when he was shot.

Wilson said that he did not believe Stockley’s actions after the pursuit were “consistent with the conduct of a person intentionally killing another person unlawfully,” noting that Stockley did not immediately open fire when approaching Smith’s car and adding that the officer had been told Smith had a gun.

“No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson also discussed Stockley’s comment about killing Smith, saying that the pursuit was stressful for the officers involved, noting that “people say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations.”

Bruntrager, Stockley’s attorney, said that while it is terrible when someone loses their life, Stockley felt some “personal satisfaction” because Wilson’s order showed he viewed the former officer as credible.

“Particularly police officers who’ve been through this, they know what they know, they know what they saw,” Bruntrager said of officers facing charges or possible charges after fatal shootings. “When they hear someone say, ‘Yes, I believe that is what happened,’ that makes a difference.”

The decision to charge Stockley last year came as the number of law enforcement officers charged for deadly on-duty shootings has increased, which experts have attributed to an increase in video evidence and public pressure. But the increased number of charges have not led to more convictions, which remain very rare in cases involving officers charged for shooting someone or using deadly force while on duty.

In the span of a week this summer, juries opted against convicting three police officers charged in high-profile shootings that were captured on video. In each of those cases, the video and the case prompted protests and unrest. In each of those cases, prosecutors filed charges and decried what had happened. Each case ended with an acquittal, showing what law enforcement officials and experts say are the limitations of video evidence.

“This not guilty verdict of a police officer who violently killed a citizen is another slap in the face to the black community in St. Louis. And a shot in the heart to the family of the victim,” Missouri State Rep. Michael Butler (D-St. Louis) said in a statement issued Friday morning, adding that the verdict has left him “appalled.”

“This system and all the politicians calling for peace are ignoring the pain this verdict causes our communities. Anthony Lamar Smith is dead from a violent act and you want us to be peaceful? You want us to not feel anger? The very people paid to protect us are killing us, paid to make peace are perpetuating violence, and we are supposed to be peaceful?” he wrote. “We will be nonviolent but we will not settle on peace. No justice. No peace.”

This story has been updated since it was first published. 

Further reading:

The Washington Post’s database of police shootings this year

Former Milwaukee police officer acquitted in fatal shooting of Sylville Smith

Mistrial declared in case of South Carolina officer who shot Walter Scott after traffic stop