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Ferguson Protesters|Want Police Reined In

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Six protesters claim in court that police and highway patrol officers used tear gas to try to prevent them from expressing themselves in the streets of Ferguson, Mo.

Lead plaintiff Alexis Templeton on Monday sued St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, and Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, in Federal Court.

Templeton et al. ask the court:

to prohibit law enforcement leaders from deploying police officers to protests unless each officers carries clearly visible personal identification;

to prohibit the defendants from declaring a gathering an unlawful assembly unless there is evidence that six or more people are knowingly assembled and in agreement with each other to participate in criminal activity;

to prohibit the defendants from using chemical agents except as a last resort to prevent significant threats to public safety;

to prohibit them from using tear gas or chemical agents on people or gatherings in a closed environment;

to prohibit them from using tear gas or chemical agents on individuals or gatherings to frighten members of a gathering or demonstration;

and to prohibit them from using chemical agents or physical violence on people being arrested when the people are not physically resisting arrest.

The three defendant officers oversaw a unified command between their agencies during the protests.

"Plaintiffs, in the course of the lawful exercise of First Amendment rights, have all been subjected to actions by police acting under authority of command now designated as the Unified Command, designed to frighten and intimidate plaintiffs and to deter their continued exercise of First Amendment rights," the lawsuit states. "Officers acting under authority of Unified Command have intimidated demonstrators, impeded their entry or exit from demonstrations, assaulted them with chemical agents including tear gas and pepper spray, shot them with so-called 'less-than-lethal' projectiles, rounded them up in mass arrests, engaged in physical and verbal abuse, failed to visibly identify themselves, and categorically labeled demonstrations as unlawful assemblies."

The plaintiffs claim there was no legitimate reason for police to fire tear gas at the crowd.

"Children and elderly people were among the crowds when the police launched tear gas upon them without warning and often with no clear means of egress," the complaint states. "Further, as alleged herein, police acting under authority of Unified Command categorically labeled gatherings as unlawful assemblies, boxed in demonstrators without ample means of exit, failed to wear visible identification and failed to provide ample notice or opportunity to exit before administering chemical agents upon crowds, administered chemical agents at peaceful demonstrators, and administered chemical agents in ways targeted and designed as punishment."

The protests were sparked by the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. The protesters say they were voicing their opposition to what they perceive as excessive force used by police.

Protesters burned more than a dozen businesses and vehicles in Ferguson in the immediate hours after a grand jury failed to indict Wilson on Nov. 24.

The plaintiffs claim their constitutional rights are in jeopardy.

"During the course of these demonstrations, plaintiffs and others witnessed and experienced numerous incidents in which defendants and their officers undertook actions which were purposefully designed to frighten and punish demonstrators by inflicting harm and to deter them from continuing demonstrative activities," the complaint states. "Numerous examples of police abuse at demonstrations during the week following the announcement of the grand jury's decision cause plaintiffs to believe that unless enjoined, their First Amendment rights will continue to be impeded in the future."

The plaintiffs claim that unless the defendants' unconstitutional actions are enjoined, they will be forced to forego their right to protest or be threatened with mental and emotional distress, physical injuries, pain, fear, humiliation, medical expenses and lost earnings.

They are represented by Thomas B. Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. Started in 2009, ArchCity Defenders' goal is to break the cycle of "revolving door justice" in the St. Louis area by providing holistic criminal and civil legal services to the homeless and working poor in the region, according to the group's website.

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