St. Louis police say their protest response was lawful and appropriate
Police officials denied violating the rights of protesters or others, and said their orders to disperse “unlawful assemblies” were legal and proper
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — During the second day of federal court testimony over how police responded to protests, police officials denied violating the rights of protesters or others, and said that their orders to disperse “unlawful assemblies” were legal and proper.
The wide-ranging hearing that continued Thursday covered events on multiple days that followed the not-guilty verdict on Sept. 15 in the murder trial of a former St. Louis police officer, Jason Stockley.
The hearing is on a request for a preliminary injunction regulating police activity before a lawsuit filed last month by the ACLU is heard.
On Thursday, lawyers attempted to address a series of questions upon which the case will turn: What is an unlawful assembly and who can declare it? When does a protest in the street become illegal enough to act on? If police order a crowd of protesters and others to disperse, does that order apply to everyone, or just those believed to be committing illegal activity? Might the others think that the orders don’t apply to them? And how far away and for how long must people disperse?
The nearly five hours of testimony began with St. Louis police Lt. Timothy Sachs, commander of the tactical operations division, as well as Sgt. Matthew Karnowski with the bicycle response team and Sgt. Brian Rossomanno, supervisor in its civil disobedience unit.
Sachs said he suggested the mass arrest of more than 120 people at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard on Sept. 17, and that his plan was approved by the incident commander, Lt. Col. Gerald Leyshock. The crowd was given multiple warnings to disperse and told they could be arrested or subject to chemical munitions, Sachs said.
Among those arrested were protesters, an Air Force lieutenant and his wife who lived nearby, a photojournalist for Getty Images, and Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk, who was assigned to cover the protest.
Sachs said he didn’t have information on an undercover officer who was purportedly arrested with the others.
Rossomanno demurred several times when asked about that arrest, then said that it occurred elsewhere and long before the mass arrest, after the officer was mistaken for a protester. Asked if the officer had been beaten by police, Rossomanno said that he was not, then said, “I heard there was some sort of resisting involved.”
Sachs said that the final order to disperse came at 11:01 p.m., and the officers gradually closed all streets leading to the intersection, with the final exit closed about 11:25 p.m.
Sachs said the arrests were justified because some people were blocking the street and all had refused police orders to disperse.
Police were also trying to prevent people from doing any more damage to downtown areas, both he and Rossomanno said. Windows and large ornamental flower pots were broken several hours before the arrests in an area several blocks to the east.
All three said they saw several people pepper-sprayed, but said those people were refusing to get down on the ground or show their hands.
Karnowski said one man who was resisting was also said to be armed with knives. He also said police found six guns after the arrests.
All said they saw no inappropriate uses of force, contradicting the prior day’s testimony of people who said that they were beaten and pepper-sprayed by police even when restrained with zip ties or complying with police orders.
The police officials said people may have been sprayed while restrained if they were kicking at police or otherwise resisting the arrest.
All also said any officer can declare an assembly to be unlawful, from officers on the scene up to the incident commander.
Sachs said deciding when it was unlawful depended on the actions of those involved and that there were no rules covering that.
Sachs also said he had no concrete answer for how far people should have gone from the scene where they were ordered to disperse, or for how long.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, who is overseeing the case, said, “There has to be some line, we’re just trying to figure out what it is. I’m trying to understand these limits.”
Sachs and Rossomanno both later said police didn’t want people to simply “re-congregate” in a different area.
Rossomanno said a reasonable person would “leave and stay away.”
The officers said that other instances of the use of pepper spray or pepper balls detailed in testimony the day before were reasonable uses of force in an attempt to get the crowds to disperse or de-escalate situations.
Testimony will continue Monday morning with at least one more police witness and legal arguments from both sides.
Lawyers have yet to argue their case in person in front of Perry, but the ACLU says in court filings that police improperly declare crowds to be unlawful assemblies and order them to disperse and the rules for doing that are unconstitutionally vague.
The filings also say that police have been retaliating against people filming police activity.
They want an order that would immediately regulate police activity during protests.
Lawyers for the police say that in instances where violence or property destruction has happened, “the police have responded in a measured and reasonable fashion to curb the illegal behavior and to protect the public from further violence and property damage.”
They say that the ACLU’s underlying lawsuit is likely to fail and that a preliminary injunction would prevent police from “acting quickly and decisively to prevent and quell violence and property damage committed by persons during protests.”
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