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Air Force captain, wife among dozen suing St. Louis police over brutal protester beatings

The city faces 15 separate suits stemming from the night the police chief decided to 'own the night.'

Police arrest demonstrators protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley on September 16, 2017. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Police arrest demonstrators protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley on September 16, 2017. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

St. Louis police now face more than a dozen separate lawsuits from civilians beaten, pepper-sprayed, and verbally abused by officers in 2017 after a fellow cop was controversially acquitted of murder.

Twelve new suits were filed in the case Monday, one year on from the night that residents rallied in protest of a judge’s finding that former officer Jason Stockley had not murdered Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. A handful of shop windows were smashed in one part of town early that evening, prompting a half-dozen arrests at that location. But hours later and several blocks away, an angry but peaceful remnant of the earlier crowd were “kettled” by police and arrested en masse.

Kettling is a police tactic whereby officers form a human cordon surrounding a group and arrest everyone inside. It is now discouraged in many manuals and lists of best practices for handling protest activity.

The stragglers kettled last September in St. Louis included several passersby who had simply wandered over to check out the cause of all the noise. One couple filed suit within two weeks, saying they’d been intentionally injured by police in the kettle who taunted them and made a point of destroying the equipment they use to make documentary films. Earlier this year, a second suit was filed by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist present at the kettle.

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Monday’s raft of additional suits include another videographer, Demetrius Thomas, who says he lost clients after the incident because police had destroyed or seized the equipment he used to shoot weddings. “‘It ended up snowballing to the point that I couldn’t keep up with my bills’…and he eventually lost his home and car,” according to the St. Louis American, which received copies of the lawsuits before they were filed.

Alex and Iris Nelson also sued, saying they had wandered outside to see what the fuss was about and ended up on the pointy end of the officers’ rage. The couple alleges officers intentionally pepper-sprayed them in the eyes at point blank range even though they were complying with the arresting officers’ commands.

“You like that cocksucker? It’s ok, we’ll see you out here tomorrow night,” one officer allegedly said to Alex, a U.S. Air Force officer, while dragging him across the pavement with his hands zip-tied behind him.

The alleged verbal abuse is consistent with eyewitness reports and bystander videos from the night in question. Even though roughly three hours had passed since the earlier window-breaking and more limited arrests, St. Louis officers in riot gear seemed to view anyone still in the streets late that Sunday as enemies of the badge.

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“Whose streets? Our streets!” one block of riot cops chanted provocatively at the remaining protesters. Later, after his officers had arrested and allegedly brutalized more than 70 people in the kettle, St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole would boast at a press conference that his officers “owned the night.”

Stockley, the former city cop acquitted in Smith’s killing, was initially not charged because authorities determined he was justified in shooting the man five times at point-blank range after catching up to his car following a brief chase. There was a gun found in Smith’s car, and Stockley and his partner said he’d tried to point it at the officers after they approached his vehicle.

Video from their squadcar captured Stockley saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker” once the officers caught up to him. Stockley’s DNA was found on the gun Smith had allegedly pointed at him, but Smith’s was not. Prosecutors eventually decided to charge him with murder, in a case eerily reminiscent of the early-2000s “Jack in the Box case” in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. Smith had nearly struck one of the officers with his car while maneuvering away after they rushed in to make a drug bust.

Stockley was acquitted by Judge Timothy Wilson in a bench trial — the no-jury version of a criminal proceeding that defendants can request when they believe a judge will be more likely to take their side. Wilson’s ruling went out of its way to emphasize that Smith’s role in the local drug economy made him dangerous, and mocked the prosecution’s characterization of Smith’s driving, but described the officers’ conclusive ramming of his car to end the chase as a “bump.”

Protests went on for days following the ruling, with the Sunday evening kettling marking a high point for volatility — and a low point for the police department. The scenes captured on video and relayed in the various lawsuit claims are reminiscent of the Metropolitan Police Department’s harsh handling of anti-Trump protesters on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. Before he was elected, Trump himself had promised to encourage police to “go and counter-attack” their critics.

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The 14 separate individual plaintiffs’ suits over O’Toole’s efforts to “own the night” will move in parallel to a wider class-action complaint lodged by the ACLU of Missouri. A federal judge in that case has already found that the officers operated “in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct.”