The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is under federal investigation for potential civil rights violations in its handling of protests following the not-guilty verdict in the first-degree murder bench trial of former police officer Jason Stockley.
Jeff Jensen, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri said on Monday that his office, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI St. Louis Division have opened the investigation, which had been requested by U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis).
Jensen said the FBI St. Louis Division would collect evidence relevant to the accusations made by Clay, the ACLU of Missouri and others, and “ensure there is a fair, thorough and impartial investigation.”
Since it’s an ongoing investigation, Jensen declined further comment or any follow-up questions.
Clay requested the investigation in a letter dated Nov. 14, following a ruling on that date by federal District Judge Catherine Perry that criticized aggressive policing of protests and restricted the indiscriminate use of chemical agents against protestors and bystanders.
“I am deeply troubled by the numerous reports and documented allegations of civil rights violations by law enforcement,” Clay wrote to Jensen.
“An investigation into alleged unlawful police actions could be a powerful example of how the federal government ensures justice is administered without bias and an acknowledgment that all rights must be respected. St. Louis is the poster child for the need of federal intervention to address decades of bad police relations that reinforce the decline and erode the trust of police-community relations.”
Perry’s ruling, in a suit brought by the ACLU of Missouri, was a stinging rebuke to St. Louis police, police leadership and Mayor Lyda Krewson. Both Krewson and interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole initially praised police for their work handling the Stockley verdict protests. O’Toole went so far as to claim the police “owned the night” after a particularly aggressive night of policing that resulted in a massive kettle arrest of protestors, journalists and bystanders.
In her order, Judge Perry ruled that, “Police can’t declare an unlawful assembly and enforce it against those engaged in expressive activity unless persons are acting in concert to pose an imminent threat to use force or violence or to violate a criminal law with force or violence.” Perry also prohibited the use of chemical agents such as mace and pepper spray against “expressive, non-violent activity without probable cause to make an arrest and without providing clear and unambiguous warnings and an opportunity to heed those warnings.”
Perry’s order indicated her judgment that police had taken upon themselves an unconstitutional punitive role when she forbid the use of chemical agents for “the purpose of punishing the person for exercising constitutional rights.”
ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert called the use of pepper spray “the new firehose,” a reference to the use of high-powered water hoses to disrupt protests and punish protestors during the civil rights era.
The injunction will remain in effect until Perry issues further instruction. That case will now proceed to a trial phase; the ACLU is seeking damages from the city and more permanent restrictions on SLMPD tactics.
The ongoing protests were triggered by the acquittal of Stockley in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith following a high-speed chase, during which Stockley was recorded on camera telling his partner they were going to kill Smith. Stockley claimed Smith was going for a gun when he opened fire, after a few minutes at the side of Smith’s car door. The only gun retrieved from Smith’s car had Stockley’s prints, but not Smith’s.
Judge Timothy Wilson’s ruling acquitting Stockley included his rumination that it would be an “anomaly” if Smith had not been carrying a gun since Smith was, in his judgment, an “urban heroin dealer.”