On Tuesday, a freelance journalist noticed that a no-fly zone had been issued over Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the recent protests over police violence.
Residents have taken to the streets to express their anger at the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot dead by a police officer there. Witnesses allege that Brown was innocent and doing nothing but jaywalking, while police officials have stayed vague on the topic. In recent days, the protests have become violent, with police officers using rubber bullets and tear gas to quell unrest.
The reason listed on the Federal Aviation Commission’s website for the no-fly zone over the city is “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ACTIVITIES.”
To get more of a sense of what that means, ThinkProgress called the helicopter dispatcher at the St. Louis County Police Department. St. Louis, not Ferguson, has been “responsible for crowd control,” a Ferguson Police spokesperson said.
According to the dispatcher, the department originally requested the no-fly zone — for certain flights; “the ceiling is only at 5,000 feet,” the dispatcher said, though the website actually lists 3,000 feet — for 24 hours. The department then asked the FAA to extend the ban on flying.
The reason? “It’s just for a no fly zone because we have multiple helicopters maneuvering in the area and we were having some problems with news aircrafts flying around there,” the dispatcher, who would only identify himself by his first name, Chris, said.
The effort to stop media from flying over the area to film is troubling, especially in light of reports that police have turned journalists away from the sites of the protests.
Chris said that police helicopters were a common occurrence over the city, but would not reveal whether there had been an increase in police helicopter presence as the protests have heated up.
It’s hard to get a sense of how often these requests are made, and a spokeswoman for the FAA was unable to immediately provide data to that effect. But a quick search over recent no-fly requests in the FAA database shows that most no-fly zones are issued either “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR FIRE FIGHTING AVIATION OPERATIONS,” for a “VIP” — a situation when security forces clear the airspace for an important person like President Obama or a head of state — or for air shows. (One no-fly restriction over Socorro, New Mexico, was for the purpose of “EXPLOSIVE TESTING.”)
A spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department told NBC News that “police helicopter came under fire on 3 or 4 occasions, so we requested that the FAA put up a no-fly zone for the safety of pilots who would be in the area.” He said that no aircraft had been hit but that officers had seen shots fired into the air.