ST. LOUIS (AP) — A federal judge should end restrictions on when St. Louis police use chemical agents such as pepper spray and tear gas to break up protests, according to a court filing on behalf of the police department.
The 39-page motion filed Friday seeks to dissolve a preliminary injunction issued in 2017 after the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of protesters who took to the streets in response to the acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley.
A judge on Sept. 15 2017, found Stockley, who is white, not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black drug suspect. Within minutes of the announcement, protests broke out.
Demonstrations lasted for weeks, and some turned violent. Police were at times pelted with bricks and bottles. Several officers suffered minor to moderate injuries. About 300 people were arrested.
But police were accused of abusive actions that included arresting law-abiding demonstrators, innocent bystanders and journalists, and inappropriately using tear gas and pepper spray. The police actions spurred nearly two dozen lawsuits and prompted a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that led to indictments of four officers .
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry’s November 2017 injunction in the ACLU lawsuit said police can’t end protests or use chemical agents to punish people for exercising their right to free speech. Her order said that before using chemical agents, police need probable cause to arrest a person, must first give “clear and unambiguous warnings,” and must allow people enough time to obey police commands.
The judge cited testimony and video evidence showing that officers acted “in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct,” she wrote at the time.
But police in the new filing said their own video evidence gathered from media, police officers, even plaintiffs in the lawsuit, suggested that officers were under siege. The filing said police used pepper spray only to clear streets, come to the aid of officers, and defend Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home after hundreds of protesters gathered outside of it in September 2017.
The filing also compared St. Louis’ response favorably to what happened in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, and in Baltimore during protests that followed officer-involved fatalities.
Police “on the whole responded to extremely difficult challenges with disciplined effectiveness,” the filing said. “St. Louisans did not experience the violence and terror of full-scale riots, as did Ferguson or Baltimore in similar situations. For this the community (including plaintiffs, though they may not realize it) owes a debt of gratitude to the vast majority of St. Louis police officers.”
The case is scheduled for trial Aug. 26. ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said he’ll save the thrust of his response for trial.
“We view the case and the evidence that we’ve gathered in the last year-and-a-half quite differently than the city does,” Rothert said.
In November, the Justice Department announced the indictments of officers Dustin Boone, Randy Hays, Christopher Myers and Bailey Colletta. Boone, Hays and Myers were accused of beating an undercover officer during a Stockley protest, unaware he was a colleague. Colletta was accused of conspiring to cover up the crime.
Concerns about police behavior were raised again in January, when officer Nathaniel Hendren was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of another officer, Katlyn Alix. Charging documents said they had been drinking and playing a variation of Russian roulette, taking turns pointing a gun loaded with one bullet at each other and pulling the trigger. Alix died of a chest wound.