ST. LOUIS (CN) – St. Louis city police officers violated protesters’ civil rights by using chemical weapons and interfering with the videotaping of police activity during a controversial arrest technique used Sunday night, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint on behalf of two protesters on Friday.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Protests have been going on in St. Louis since a judge found white former city police officer Jason Stockley innocent in the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, last Friday morning. Stockley shot Smith at close range following a high-speed chase in December 2011 after observing an alleged drug deal.
Protesters believe prosecutors’ claims that Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car immediately after the shooting. Stockley’s DNA, not Smith’s, was found on the gun in Smith’s car.
On Sunday night after violence erupted at the end of a protest, officers employed a technique called “kettling,” where police surrounded the protesters who refused to disperse and arrested them. It resulted in more than 100 arrests, including that of St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk who claimed he was simply covering the protests.
Faulk is not a party to the lawsuit, but the Post-Dispatch has publicly demanded that charges against him be dropped.
Kettling is a police tactic used for controlling large crowds at demonstrations or protests. It is controversial because it sometimes results in the arrest of ordinary bystanders along with protesters.
The ACLU’s lawsuit states that police “without warning” had used chemical weapons on protesters several times on Friday leading up to the kettling event and about 45 minutes before the arrests were made on Sunday, police ordered the crowd to disperse “at a location some distance away.”
Then without warning, police closed in arresting everyone, according to the lawsuit.
“Police officers, who were wearing protective equipment, then without warning deployed chemical agents at the individuals caught in the kettle,” the lawsuit states.
“Some individuals caught in the kettle had been wearing goggles because they feared the deployment of chemical agents.
“Police officers roughly removed the goggles and then sprayed those individuals directly in the face.”
The lawsuit also claims that officers throughout the weekend ordered protesters to stop videotaping and photographing and sometimes destroyed pictures and videos that had already been taken or recorded.
“To create long-term change, we must address the problems of policing and racial disparities collaboratively,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU Missouri, in a statement. “Law enforcement officers, community members, experts, advocates and elected officials must come together to create sustainable solutions. We must foster understanding and trust.”
Faulk’s account is similar to the allegations in the lawsuit. The Post-Dispatch reported that Falk was on the ground and his hands were bound with zip ties when a police officer held his head down with his foot and then an officer sprayed him in the face with some sort of chemical.