ST. LOUIS — A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the city and 343 St. Louis police officers and officials is seeking class-action status to represent scores of protesters arrested downtown in a police "kettle" two years ago.
The 75-page suit says that officers either violated or conspired to violate the constitutional rights of 123 arrested on Sept. 17, 2017, and also violated a 2015 consent decree that said police couldn't use chemical agents without a warning.
Police officials should have known that there was no legal basis or probable cause to use force against protesters or arrest them, the suit continues. It says there is a "pattern and practice" among St. Louis police officers and officials of using chemical agents without warning.
City officials said they hadn't seen the suit and would not comment.
The suit focuses on one particular police tactic used during the protest that night, one of a series of demonstrations that followed the Sept. 15, 2017, acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley on a murder charge. Faced with a group of protesters at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard downtown, police used a technique called "kettling," in which they surrounded the group, blocked exits, and arrested protesters, residents, journalists and others en masse.
The suit is one of at least three filed against the city on Monday and Tuesday, just before the two-year anniversary of the arrests and a state statute of limitations deadline. On Monday, a former St. Louis County substitute teacher also sued, claiming she was pepper-sprayed while trying to hear unintelligible police instructions, as did undercover detective Luther Hall, who says colleagues beat him up and falsely arrested him.
The kettling suit was filed on behalf of St. Louis residents Fudail McCain and Nicole Warrington, St. Louis County residents Alicia Street and Ronald Harris, and St. Charles County resident Ashley Theis.
It says lawyers are unable to name all the officers involved in the arrests because they used their tactical gear to obscure their identities and because the city has yet to provide an accurate list, despite the passage of two years and a local and federal investigation of the events of that evening.
“This is our best estimation as to who was there, but in reality we're doing the work that the city should have been doing over the last two years,” said Javad Khazaeli, one of the lawyers who filed the suit.
The lawsuit alleges a series of claims, including malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, false arrest, battery, excessive force, and other constitutional and civil rights violations.
In November 2017, after the kettling and following an ACLU lawsuit and a series of hearings in federal court, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry issued an order that says police can't declare an “unlawful assembly” and enforce it against those “engaged in expressive activity" — unless, she wrote, "the persons are acting in concert to pose an imminent threat to use force or violence or to violate a criminal law with force or violence.”
She also banned the use of chemical agents against “expressive, nonviolent activity” without probable cause to make an arrest and without providing “clear and unambiguous warnings” and an opportunity for protesters to heed those warnings.
Officers also must give specific dispersal orders, explaining what area must be vacated and giving people time and a way to leave. Perry said that the kettle “cannot meet constitutional standards,” as there was no evidence of force or violence at the time of the arrests of protesters, bystanders, journalists and downtown residents. Mike Faulk, who was a Post-Dispatch reporter at the time, was arrested; two colleagues evaded police lines by escaping into nearby buildings. Faulk's 2018 federal lawsuit is pending, as are lawsuits on behalf of at least 13 others.
Those arrested had testified that police orders were inaudible and vague, and that they had been pepper-sprayed and beaten while complying.
Police said then that they needed to be able to clear streets and send protesters home and that protesters against police were treated no differently than any others.
The Sept. 15, 2017, incident with former St. Louis County substitute teacher Laura Jones was caught on video. Jones' suit, filed Monday, claims she was pepper-sprayed while trying to hear police instructions and was knocked to the ground by police riot shields. The pepper spray triggered an asthma attack, and police would not hand over her inhaler, the suit says. She waited for officers to transport her to a police station for several hours, was held in a cell there for 5½ hours and spent 11 more hours in jail, the suit says. The incident left her with PTSD, anxiety and depression and caused her to lose her teaching job when she had a panic attack in class, the suit says.
Khazaeli, who also represents Jones, said, "She's still very traumatized by this.”