Members of law enforcement and civil libertarians were strongly critical of the tactics and behavior of the St Louis police department amid protests over the acquittal of a white officer in the 2011 shooting death of a black man.
Some officers’ behavior was called unethical, alarming and even unconstitutional.
One of the primary catalysts for concern was a video that emerged on Monday of a group of officers loudly mocking the popular protest chant “Whose streets? Our streets” after making a series of arrests.
“That chant goes against the very code of ethics we swore to abide by,” said Heather King, president of the Ethical Order of Police, a local organization founded by African American officers. “Whether we agree with demonstrations, protests or acts of violence, it is our job to do our job free of personal bias.”
Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement for the Center for Policing Equity, a criminal justice thinktank, called the chants “horrible” and “alarming”.
“The role of policing – the No 1 most important thing that you do – is [to] protect the constitutional rights of everybody, and what [those officers] engaged in, it really is an infringement in so many ways,” he said.
“If you are policing based on ego, based on personal things – all that needs to be set aside to conduct fair and impartial policing interaction with people.”
Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said that by arresting 123 people on Sunday, police “unlawfully detained and arrested people, used excessive force and unconstitutionally broke up a peaceful assembly of people”.
If you are policing based on ego – all that needs to be set aside to conduct fair and impartial policing
Chris Burbank, Center for Policing Equity
Police told a large group of people gathered in downtown that because windows had been broken and large flower pots pushed over, the assembly was being declared illegal.
Bystander video showed police using irritant chemical sprays on protesters who were seated and compliant, many with their hands in the air, or even those running away. Protesters accused the police of “kettling” them, surrounding them and making arrests once they fail to disburse.
Mike Faulk, a reporter for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, told colleagues he was “pepper-sprayed in face while an officer’s foot held my head to ground”.
Tony Rice, a veteran St Louis protester who said he wound up in the same holding cell as Faulk, said officers were using pepper spray indiscriminately and seemed to be trying to inflict punishment on those they arrested.
“At one point I had an Eric Garner moment,” Rice said, referencing the 2014 death of a Staten Island man in an arrest carried out with an illegal chokehold. “He kept pepper-spraying me and pushing me down … and then it felt like there was two knees on my back.”
Rice was pushed off his bike by officers, he said, adding that his neck was pushed into the bike’s crossbar, leaving him unable to breath. “I was screaming ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’, and I’ll tell you, I really thought I was going to die,” he told the Guardian.
Many of those arrested on Sunday night, according to Rice, were not demonstrators but merely curious residents. Burbank, who was chief of police in Salt Lake City for nearly a decade, questioned the wisdom of trying to carry out mass arrests at all, or even trying to disburse a crowd that was, by all accounts, almost entirely peaceful.
“Why does the crowd need to move?” he asked. “How many officers does it take to deploy teargas and pepper-spray and don riot gear and move a crowd, as opposed to closing down streets for a few hours and letting a crowd get their message across and allowing them to disburse naturally?”
St Louis interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole was more forthright. “The police owned tonight,” he said in a Monday press conference. “We’re in control.”
He kept pepper-spraying me and pushing me down … and then it felt like there was two knees on my back
The protests were sparked by the acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley over the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Stockley shot and killed Smith after a car chase; he said he thought Smith was reaching for a gun.
Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car, a gun which another officer testified he did not see when he first searched the vehicle. The officer’s DNA was found on the weapon but Smith’s was not. Dashcam video from Stockley’s cruiser recorded him saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker”. He shot Smith five times, including once at close range.
In 2014, just a few miles away in Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, sparked intense protests.
Many protesters in Ferguson said police provoked demonstrators by showing up in riot gear and armored vehicles. Police countered that they had no choice but to protect themselves. In the Stockley protests, several officers have reportedly been injured.
Many in the city were hoping the department would adopt softer tactics but those hopes quickly faded. Burbank said it was easier to judge police decisions in hindsight, but said good policing comes down to one key question.
He said: “We always need to ask ourselves: there’s a lot we can do, but what should we do? Is it in the best interest of public peace, harmony and security for us to engage in that activity?”