No, the police don’t own the streets. They do not own the night. Any law enforcer, from interim St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole on down to the rawest probationary officer, who suggests otherwise needs a refresher course on the role of police in a democracy. Re-reading the Bill of Rights might also help.
O’Toole took an overtly political stand after police arrested more than 100 people in downtown St. Louis Sunday night by stating that “police owned tonight.” In his apparent attempt to boost morale, O’Toole encouraged the kinds of abusive policing actions that are the focus of the protests themselves. Officers in riot gear stepped over the line Sunday and might well have opened the door to expensive legal action against the city.
Protesters had been doing exactly what they’ve done every day since Friday’s verdict in the trial of former police Officer Jason Stockley. They gathered to denounce the exoneration of a white officer who, during a hot pursuit in 2011, stated an intent to kill a black suspect, and then seconds later did exactly that. Multiple abuses of Stockley’s policing authority were the focus of his trial, which is why the verdict has prompted such a public outcry.
As in previous days, violence broke out Sunday, prompting police to clear a downtown area where the windows of various buildings were broken. A Post-Dispatch photographer heard police chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” mimicking an oft-used protest chant.
Some protesters regrouped nearby at Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard. Members of the news media followed them, as did nonprotesting legal observers. At the same time, residents of nearby buildings were arriving home and trying to get into their buildings.
Police corralled them all utilizing a technique called kettling. The nonparticipants got caught in the middle with no option to leave when ordered to do so because police left them no exit point. Some were doused with pepper spray. Mass arrests followed. It was a form of collective punishment that rested on the flimsiest of legal foundations.
Police earned praise after protests started Friday morning for responding like true professionals. Patience now appears to be wearing thin as 12-hour shifts and five continuous days on full alert take their toll. Some protesters have shouted in officers’ faces and hurled abuse. Police say they’ve been assaulted with bricks, paint and a vinegar-type liquid.
Find those breaking the law and arrest them. Good policing requires incredible patience and restraint. Mass arrests that punish law-abiding protesters and journalists is not good policing. It is an abuse of authority.
The worst possible response to a protest against police abuse is more police abuse. Mayor Lyda Krewson tried to draw the line with a statement Tuesday condemning police misconduct. It’s now up to O’Toole to restore discipline in his ranks.