In St. Louis, bad behavior by police responding to protests about…previous bad police behavior—has sparked another form of protest: the publicly published protest letter.
Actually, there are two letters: One, from the ACLU, admonishes the St. Louis City Police Department to use restraint when confronting protesters. Another, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, demands that all charges be dropped in the case of the improper arrest, during a street protest, of a fully credentialed reporter who was covering the event.
Here are excerpts from each of the letters:
On Friday, the ACLU of Missouri sent each of your offices a letter. We implored you to remind law enforcement to allow the community to continue to express its outrage, pain and grief by protecting their First Amendment right to protest.
We know there were sporadic moments of violence and vandalism – these are not covered by the Constitutional right to protest. However, outside of these moments, officers broke their vow to protect the public by engaging in illegal activities and actions that violated policies of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and agreed-upon rules of engagement made during 2014 protests.
The letter notes that ACLU of Missouri trains legal observers to monitor demonstrations for violations of civil liberties and Constitutional rights. It then lists some of what the legal observers saw police officers doing, including:
Attacking people indiscriminately with gratuitous use of pepper spray, pepper balls, rubber bullets, and tear gas when no apparent illegal activity had occurred.
Excessively using of force, including violent arrests that caused injuries.
Deploying chemicals, such as tear gas and pepper spray, without warning.
Deploying tear gas on routes where people were leaving.
Arresting people with questionable probable cause.
Illegally searching bags and other possessions.
Not wearing name tags and not identifying themselves.
Blocking access to public spaces without apparent cause of officer safety, ongoing investigation, or public safety hazard.
Forcefully blocking recordings of police conduct in public spaces at safe and reasonable distances.
Selectively enforcing access to public spaces.
Entering safe spaces against policy and with questionable probable cause.
Using intimidating displays of force, explicitly contrary to agreement prior to release of verdict.
Calling these behaviors “unacceptable,” the ACLU urges city officials to require police officers to follow proper procedures, including:
To not use chemical weapons, such as pepper spray and tear gas, without following the proper protocols to ensure the protection of constitutional rights.
Officers’ nametags should be visible at all times for police accountability.
To wear their body cameras and have them turned on at all times.
Not use force against protesters absent a real and immediate threat of physical harm to others.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The protest letter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch comes in response to the arrest of Mike Faulk, a reporter who was clearly displaying his credentials, during a roundup of demonstrators in the City of St. Louis.
The Post-Dispatch condemned the “inappropriate and highly disturbing” arrest of one of its journalists on Sunday during a mass arrest by St. Louis police officers, and demanded that the city drop charges against him.
The letter, written by attorney Joseph E. Martineau, of the Lewis Rice law firm, said officers should have released Faulk immediately after recognizing he was covering a story, and allowed him to keep working.
Instead, he was arrested with “unneeded and inappropriate force” that caused injury to both legs, his back and wrist. Faulk was “forcefully pushed to the ground by police officers and a police officer’s boot was placed on his head.” After his wrists were bound with zip ties, a police officer “deliberately sprayed him in the face with pepper spray, mace or some other stinging substance.” At some point, an officer reviewed the contents of Faulk’s phone.
Inside the jail, the letter said, jail personnel denied Faulk’s repeated requests for medical attention. The city counselor’s office charged Faulk with failure to disperse, and he was released on $50 bail. He returned to the newsroom limping, knees bloodied and pepper spray still on his skin.
The city’s failure to establish a protocol to recognize and respect the rights of journalists gathering news was “a grave mistake,” the letter said.
In a comment published in the Post-Dispatch as the letter was making its way to city officials, the newspaper’s editor, Gilbert Bailon said:
St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalists and other credentialed news media provide critical information to the public. When St. Louis police arrested Mike, after he fully identified himself while covering the protests, they violated basic tenets of our democracy. Additionally, the physical abuse he suffered during the arrest is abhorrent and must be investigated. The Post-Dispatch is calling for our city leaders to immediately implement policies that will prevent journalists from being arrested without cause.
So, is the pen [aka keyboard] actually mightier than the sword [aka pepper spray, Mace, plastic wrist ties]? Let’s hope so. Otherwise, our democracy is in deep peril.