St. Louis police officers will now be forced to read monthly special orders about how to treat journalists after a federal court ruling blasted officers for their handling of protests in September.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry rebuked officers for their aggressive use of pepper spray and containment tactics while handling protests in the wake of the Sept. 15 acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley for the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. The St. Louis Police Department conducted two mass arrests during the days of consecutive protests, arresting several journalists and civilians who weren’t protesting.
The ruling and Thursday order from Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole will afford journalists “select privileges.”
“News media will be given every consideration by Department members so that they may perform their news-gathering function; however, they are not entitled to interfere with an officer’s performance of duty or the safety of citizens,” the new order from Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole reads.
Police arrested St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk as well as a Chicago-based photojournalist during one of the protests, according to The Washington Post.
Police received the most criticism for their “kettling” operation on the night of Sept. 17, where police surrounded a group of protesters and constricted more and more tightly around them, eventually making around 12o arrests. Among those were Drew and Jennifer Burbridge, married documentary filmmakers who were in St. Louis to document the protests.
Another married couple had a nearly identical experience the same night. Lt. Alex Nelson, 27, is an Air Force officer who came out of his nearby home with his wife to witness the protest.
Police sprayed his face with chemicals, forced him to the ground and dragged him away, Nelson told reporters. Nelson was never charged with a crime.
“It’s our street,” he said. “I hear the police say it was their street, but it’s literally my street. I have coffee on that street, and I own property on that street. We were not active protesters. We were looking into the neighborhood to observe events that were unfolding.” (RELATED: ACLU Sues St. Louis Police For Using ‘Chemical Weapons’ On Protesters)
“The Post-Dispatch is encouraged that St. Louis city leaders have listened to our concerns about journalists being able to do their jobs amid an environment that protects them from unwarranted arrests and physical abuse,” Post-Dispatch Editor Gilbert Bailon said in a Thursday statement. “We are hopeful this new approach will lead to a safe environment for all journalists to provide essential news coverage for the public.”
Arrested civilians also complained that police never issued a dispersal order on Sept. 17, alleging that police internally declared the protest unlawful and began arrests.
Judge Perry’s ruling also puts further limitations on the police department’s ability to declare protests unlawful.
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