Harrowing Testimony Details St. Louis Police Use of Chemical Agents on Protesters

click to enlarge Police dropped tear gas canisters in the Central West End around 10 p.m. on Friday, September 15. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Photo by Danny Wicentowski
Police dropped tear gas canisters in the Central West End around 10 p.m. on Friday, September 15.
During hours of testimony on Wednesday, sixteen witnesses described brutal confrontations with city cops assigned to the protests following the Jason Stockley verdict.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is suing the city of St. Louis on behalf of protesters, who told harrowing stories of surprise blasts of pepper spray, nerve-damaging zip ties and out-of-control riot police.

"A lot of this testimony is very, very concerning," U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry told attorneys at the end the hearing's first day.

The ACLU is asking Perry to grant an injunction that would reign in police tactics, including when and how they use chemical agents against protesters. To make the case, the stream of witnesses testified — sometimes tearfully — about police encounters in the month since Stockley, a white ex-city cop, was acquitted of murder for the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black 24-year-old suspected of dealing drugs.

The ACLU attorneys — Anthony Rothert, Jessie Steffan and Omri Praiss — spent the day quizzing their witnesses who painted a bleak picture of an unpredictable, heavy-handed police force. A often-repeated question: What did it feel like when you were pepper sprayed in the face?

"Like my face was melting," Alison Dreith, one of the lead plaintiffs, said.

"It burns like hell," said Maleeha Ahmad, the other lead plaintiff. "It is very excruciating pain. You can't see. You can't breath, and it feels like the world is ending."

"It was just a fire on my skin and in my eyes," activist Keith Rose said. "It was unbearable."

click to enlarge Maleeha Ahmad reacts after being pepper-sprayed by St. Louis officers. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
Maleeha Ahmad reacts after being pepper-sprayed by St. Louis officers.

The hearing was the first courtroom skirmish in what is likely to be multiple legal battles stemming from police response to protests that are now in their fifth week. Along with the ACLU's class-action suit, a husband-and-wife documentary team is suing the city after they were surrounded and arrested with more than 120 others on the night of September 17. Multiple others are lining up private attorneys for civil suits.

The ACLU has argued in court filings that city police regularly fail to give protesters any warning before they unleash streams of pepper spray or fire teargas. When they do give orders to disperse, they're vague, confusing and are often contradicted by different groups of police working the same scenes, protesters say.

Attorneys for the city, Anthony Relys and Thomas McDonnell, called their first witness, police Lt. Timothy Sachs, at the end of the afternoon. Sachs, a 35-year veteran of the department, commands the tactical operations division, including the Civil Disobedience Team, better known as the city's riot police.

He testified about the first day of protests, which played out in two acts. The first began almost immediately following the verdict downtown. The second came that night in the Central West End.

In contrast to the protesters' testimony, Sachs contends that police took a measured approach to an "overwhelming" and sometimes violent crowd.

"We're just trying to move people out of the area and restore some semblance of order," Sachs said.

He claimed to have heard four gunshots at various places in the Central West End in the hours after windows were broken at Mayor Lyda Krewson's house. Although he could not identify the source of the shots, he said it made officers worry and adjust their tactics. Police were hit with rocks, water bottles and pieces of brick throughout the night, and a female officer's jaw was broken when a chunk of concrete struck her helmet, he said.

Sachs was still on the stand when Perry called a halt for the day. He is scheduled to resume at noon on Thursday.

The judge says she has a number of questions about the mass arrests  or "kettle" from the third night of the protests as well as police use of mace. She specifically wants to know the city's stance on macing in the face people who are compliant.

"We heard a lot of testimony about that," she said.

She also questioned the ACLU attorneys about their goals with the injunction. She noted there are a number similarities to an existing order governing chemical deterrents that was hammered out as part of a previous settlement. But she took issue with a request that she oversee protest-related prosecutions.

"How much are you asking me to micromanage this?" she asked.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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