ACLU: In St. Louis, 'Pepper Spray Is the New Fire Hose'

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Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, says police abuse pepper spray during protests. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, says police abuse pepper spray during protests.
A federal judge will now decide whether to leash mace-wielding St. Louis cops who have repeatedly teargassed and pepper sprayed protesters in recent weeks.

Lawyers for the city and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri wrapped up their arguments this morning in a hearing regarding some of the most aggressive tactics used by police officers. The ACLU is seeking an injunction that would bar city police officers from certain tactics during their response to protests.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the state ACLU chapter, described the city cops' penchant for using pepper spray to clear the streets as a modern-day version of the fire hoses that Alabama authorities turned on marchers in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement.

"Right now in St. Louis, pepper spray is the new fire hose," Rothert told Perry.

The hearing lasted roughly seventeen hours, spread over three days, and served as the warm-up for an underlying lawsuit against the city. The lead defendants — Maleeha Ahmad and Alison Dreith — were both blasted with pepper spray on September 15 within hours of the acquittal of ex-city cop Jason Stockley, who was accused of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. Both women testified they were sprayed without warning while protesting police abuse.

Eighteen people testified for the ACLU. All alleged that police have responded to demonstrations — some going back years — with unnecessary force, unleashing surprise blasts of pepper spray, throwing or firing teargas at peaceful protesters and bystanders, and shooting paintball-like pepper balls at random.

Police have relied on loose, possibly flawed, interpretations of a city ordinance that they say gives them wide powers to declare any group of people breaking any law as an unlawful assembly, the ACLU argued. Once an assembly is determined unlawful, police have then used the distinction to deploy chemical deterrents and lock people up.

Before deploying tear gas, St. Louis cops in riot gear assembled at the intersection of Waterman Boulevard and Lake Avenue, about a block from Lyda Krewson's house. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Before deploying tear gas, St. Louis cops in riot gear assembled at the intersection of Waterman Boulevard and Lake Avenue, about a block from Lyda Krewson's house.
Representing the city, attorney Anthony Relys argued that police have rarely used force during dozens, and even hundreds, of protests in recent years. Even if police do have the legal authority to bust marchers for jaywalking — a hypothetical raised by Perry — they have a history of declaring assemblies unlawful only in response to dangerous situations, he said. Limiting officers' powers with an injunction could affect public safety, Relys argued.

"The police need the flexibility to respond in real time to to property damage, to respond to rocks and bottles," he said.

Attorneys for the city called three police witnesses last week, and they were expected to finish this morning with Sgt. Randy Jemerson, a supervisor with the department's Civil Disobedience Team or "riot police," but they decided against asking him to testify.

Perry has asked the ACLU to pare down its list of twenty requests for restrictions and remedies to guide the police response to protests. That's due at noon tomorrow.

Perry said she would work as quickly as possible to come to a decision.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.


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