Federal lawsuits filed over St. Louis police ‘kettle’ arrests, pepper-spraying

Protesters occupy Olive Street in front of the St. Louis Police Department headquarters on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. Hundreds are marching for the third day following the not guilty verdict of former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

September 17, 2018

By Robert Patrick

ST. LOUIS — Fourteen people caught in a St. Louis police “kettle” during protests last year and two others pepper-sprayed at St. Louis City Hall are filing a series of federal lawsuits against police officers, supervisors and the city, their lawyers said Monday.

Five suits were filed as of 6 p.m. Monday on behalf of one person pepper-sprayed at City Hall and six people caught in the kettle tactic on the night of Sept. 17, 2017, the third night of protests sparked by the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley on a murder charge for the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.

The suits come from residents of the St. Louis area and beyond, including protesters, observers, downtown residents, journalists, a medical student, a researcher and two military officers serving at Scott Air Force Base.

Lawyers said 12 total suits would be filed for 14 people arrested in the kettle and two more suits on behalf of people pepper-sprayed at city hall two days earlier, when the verdict was announced.

The suits claim police violated the kettle arrestees’ Fourth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from unlawful seizure and their First Amendment rights to assemble in public and express their views free from retaliation. The suits also say police conspired to deprive them of their civil rights and that the city failed to properly train officers to avoid violating the rights of protesters or others.

“We’ve got clients who are still suffering physically. Still suffering emotionally,” said Javad Khazaeli, of the Khazaeli Wyrsch firm, where St. Louis Alderman Annie Rice is also listed as an associate. Khazaeli said clients have lost houses and had trouble with their security clearances after “they were publicly identified and wrongfully shamed by the Police Department.”

Several of the plaintiffs already have testified in federal court hearings about the protests.

Plaintiffs include Alison Dreith, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, who was leaving City Hall after using the bathroom on Sept. 15, 2017, when she was pepper-sprayed in the face without warning, her suit says.

A lawsuit says Mark Gullet, a freelance journalist and filmmaker from St. Louis, was pepper-sprayed after he was restrained with zip ties, and he was then jailed for about 20 hours.

Another says Demetrius Thomas, an independent journalist and a resident of Belleville, was directed by police to the location of the kettle as he was trying to leave. Officers hit him repeatedly with a police baton in the ribs, breaking his drone, before arresting him, the suit says.

“I was strictly there to film and document that night because it’s a part of history. Instead we were kettled, beat, and arrested — there was nowhere to turn, and you couldn’t call the police because they were doing it to you,” Thomas said in a statement released by ArchCity Defenders, which is also filing the suits.

Another says Mario Ortega, who has a doctorate in biology and biomedical sciences-neurosciences and was working at Washington University at the time, was struck by officers’ bicycles and pepper-sprayed and was kicked and hit when he asked if he could film the “activity” on his phone, causing lasting damage to a previously fractured wrist. His suit says he was kicked, punched, stepped on, dragged along the sidewalk and slammed into a building.

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said in statement that, “The kettling arrests of peaceful civilians that took place one year ago constituted a gross violation of the law and abuse of state power, and there are real human beings who suffered as a result. The message of these lawsuits is simple: when law enforcement officers, themselves, fail to follow the law, they must be held accountable.”

On the night of the kettle, officials said in a statement that the protest was peaceful until after dark, when “the agitators outnumbered the peaceful demonstrators and the unruly crowd became a mob.”

The suits say the arrests happened “nearly three hours … and many blocks” away from where windows and flower pots were broken by a “handful of individuals.” Some of those arrested were not involved in the protests, or were just acting as observers, the suits say. Many were trying to leave the area when police closed off their exit routes. The suits say they were beaten and pepper-sprayed, even when compliant with officers. The suits say they were also held as long as 20 hours after their arrests. Some claim they still suffer medical and mental health problems.

The suits also say that police violated a 2015 settlement agreement that restricted the use of chemical agents to disperse non-criminal activity and had a “pattern and practice” of using chemicals on people engaged in peaceful, non-criminal activity.

The lawsuits come on the one-year anniversary of the kettle, and amid a federal investigation into police activity during the protests, including the kettle arrests, and the beating of an undercover police officer by his colleagues. Lawyers for the arrestees declined to comment Monday when asked if federal investigators had been in contact.

St. Louis City Counselor Julian Bush said Monday evening that he had not seen the lawsuits and couldn’t comment on them.

Others have previously sued, including the ACLU and three others arrested in the kettle: former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk and two documentary filmmakers.

The ACLU lawsuit, which also contained allegations involving other protests, resulted in hearings in U.S. District Court in St. Louis last fall and a preliminary injunction restricting the use by St. Louis police of chemical agents and dispersal orders. U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry said the kettle arrest “cannot meet constitutional standards” and also restricted the ability of police to declare a nonviolent protest an “unlawful assembly,” which triggers an escalated response.

Several of the plaintiffs in Monday’s suits also testified in front of Perry.

Perry ordered both sides into mediation, and they have been discussing a settlement.

Khazaeli faulted the city and police for failing to resolve the ACLU case, saying it showed that they weren’t taking the case seriously and were also flouting previous consent decrees that regulated police activity during protests.

Police supervisors testified at the hearing that protesters were given multiple warnings to disperse, and that they could be arrested or subject to the use chemical munitions. They said protesters were blocking the street and all had refused those orders to disperse. They denied seeing any inappropriate use of force, saying they only saw the use of pepper spray on those who resisted police orders. But they struggled to answer questions about how far the crowd should have gone, and for how long.

They said that officers were also injured by rocks and bottles thrown by protesters on multiple days.

———

©2018 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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