For months, Ferguson protesters and watchdog organizations have loudly accused police of employing tear gas and "unlawful assembly" orders to collectively punish peaceful demonstrators and silence free speech.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson agreed, issuing a temporary restraining order that seeks to prevent police from using tear gas without providing reasonable warning and means of escape for law abiding protesters.
The order (which is embedded below) came in response to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday against St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson.
Citing evidence from the six plaintiffs, Jackson wrote that law enforcement's indiscriminate and sudden use of tear gas violated the free speech and assembly rights of the protesters:
[L]aw enforcement officials failed to give the plaintiffs and other protesters any warning that chemical agents would be deployed and, hence, no opportunity to avoid injury. As a result, the plaintiffs' ability to engage in lawful speech and assembly is encumbered by a law enforcement response that would be used if a crime were being committed....The defendants will not suffer any harm by the issuance of an order requiring them to make sure the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and others are protected.
Jackson laid out several specific guidelines for police to follow before deploying tear gas, and she explicitly forbids officers from using the gas in response to peaceful, non-criminal protesters "for the purpose of frightening them or punishing them for exercising their constitutional rights."
Police are also ordered to:
- Issue "clear and unambiguous warnings" when chemical agents will be utilized.
- Provide individuals "sufficient opportunity to heed the warnings" and leave the area.
- Minimize impact of chemical agents on those who are complying with lawful law enforcement commands.
- Ensure there is a safe route available for people to leave the area.
The ruling comes at a particularly rough time for Dotson, who has attended two contentious public meetings this week in which audience members chastised (and at times insulted) him over his department's response to protesters whose only "crime" was not obeying police commands to disperse.
Much of that criticism has focused on St. Louis police's tear-gassing of MoKaBe's coffeehouse in the early morning hours of November 25, when police deployed canisters along a two block stretch of South Grand Boulevard after 21 business had their windows broken by vandals. Mo Costello, the owner of MoKaBe's, is listed as one of the plaintiffs in Monday's lawsuit.
Here's the full ruling of the temporary restraining order: