The city of St. Louis finds itself again at the crossroads of justice.
The federal indictment against four St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers is an important step in addressing the culture that has allowed police to consistently behave in an unconstitutional manner toward protesters. While it is a shame and a crime that an undercover officer was seriously injured with no lawful justification, he was treated that way only because he was mistaken for a protester.
We have yet to see anyone take responsibility for the many other officers who engaged in the same type of unlawful behavior toward demonstrators during the protests after Jason Stockley’s acquittal. It is disheartening to see city officials make believe that the beating of the pretend protester was an isolated or unusual incident. It was not.
That’s why the ACLU of Missouri sued the city in September 2017.
In October 2017, during a federal court hearing, protesters, members of the media, and neighbors who had been looking on told the court about experiencing the same type of unjustified abuse at the hands of police as did the undercover officer posing as a protester.
Officers used vague and perplexing ordinances to demand arbitrarily that free speech activity end when they decided. They used pepper spray and tear gas to punish people they disagreed with. And they destroyed phones and cameras and deleted files to avoid being caught engaging in such nefarious acts.
It’s been more than a year since a federal judge ruled that St. Louis police must immediately adopt protocols to protect the constitutional rights of protesters.
Solutions are available. Look no further than the reforms required by the 2016 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Ferguson Police Department. Why are city officials feigning disbelief that there is any problem beyond four officers rather than embracing reforms that address the problem?
Police departments in this region do not respect the First Amendment when people are protesting the police. St. Louis officials should address this rampant lawlessness by its police rather than look for scapegoats who are acting exactly as one would expect based on the environment in which they trained and worked.
We should be in a better place by now. The city of St. Louis has yet to adopt any meaningful policy changes since the protests after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
A large group of St. Louis police officers wielding batons provocatively chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” the night of the infamous kettling incident. Earlier, they made unlawful arrests and used illegal force against protesters. At least one of the indicted officers participated in that chant, perhaps not yet aware that one of their victims was a fellow police officer.
The role of a law enforcement officer is to protect and serve the community. In tension-filled times such as these, they must help people remain calm to preserve public safety.
Other cities do not have this problem repeatedly like we do. It won’t end until someone in city government shows leadership and respect for the safety of the people by permanently adopting commonsense safeguards protecting our constitutional rights.
We know the eyes of the world are upon St. Louis.
It is past time in St. Louis for our police to protect and serve all. It is time St. Louis moves toward true justice for all its people.
Jeffrey A. Mittman is executive director of ACLU of Missouri.