ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) – Civil rights attorneys won a partial temporary restraining order Thursday night over the use of tear gas by police. U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson ruled from the bench after a day of testimony from protestors, a legal observer and police. She said police need to issue a warning to demonstrators prior to releasing tear gas, give them directions to leave safely and allow a reasonable time to leave the area.
This comes in the wake of police response to demonstrations on November 24th. The protests followed the public release of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown shooting investigation. That night multiple arson fires destroyed businesses in Ferguson. Looting occurred, windows were broken and police reported numerous shots fired both in Ferguson and along South Grand in St. Louis City.
Police used smoke and tear gas to disperse crowds they said were threatening officers. The chemical agent was also used to deter damage to property.
The case was filed against law enforcement officers leading the Unified Command that responded to the protests in St. Louis City and County. It called for a temporary restraining order against St. Louis City Police Chief Sam Dotson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson.
At the heart of the case were questions about what constitutes an unlawful assembly and whether protestors were given adequate warnings and a way to escape before tear gas was deployed in their direction.
The court filing alleged police used tear gas “in a manner designed to inflict pain and anguish rather than accomplishing any legitimate law enforcement objective.”
St. Louis City Police Lt. Stephen Dodge testified the tear gas was used to protect officers and to prevent the destruction of property along South Grand near Arsenal. At one point he said,” there had been threats previously” to burn down South Grand.
Judge Jackson questioned Lt. Dodge about why no tear gas was used during the demonstrators’ shut down of I-44 earlier in the evening. He said protestors voluntarily left the area after they had been told to disperse and there was no need to use tear gas.
“Why was this group treated differently from the crowd at the highway?” Judge Jackson asked. “There was a serious officer safety issue; we were getting reports of shots fired. It was a more critical situation,” Dodge testified.
SLU Psychology Professor Kira Hudson Banks, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified she stood in front of an AT&T store that some young protestors had tried to break into with three other women. “That’s my neighborhood,” she explained. Banks said she began running when another, more experienced demonstrator warned her tear gas was coming. “I saw a big police vehicle coming North on Grand and I ran.”
Ferguson protestor and lawsuit plaintiff Alexis Templeton said tear gas was released before any looting or burning took place in Ferguson.
Thursday afternoon, St. Louis County Police Captain Kurk Frisz who commanded the county’s tactical unit used tear gas to rescue seven officers who were surrounded by demonstrators. He testified tear gas was necessary because there “was a lot of violence, shots fired and assaults on police officers.”
Two of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Brendan Roediger of SLU Law Clinic and Denise Lieberman of the Advancement Project said they were pleased by the ruling. Lieberman said Judge Jackson told police they need to avoid uniform mass punishment by the indiscriminate use of tear gas.
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