Protesters in the Ferguson, Missouri, area got another win against local police Thursday, in a settlement to curb the use of tear gas and other chemical agents on protesters. The agreement dictates that police can no longer deploy tear gas on protesters and other peaceful crowds without first providing warning, nor can they deploy chemical agents in spaces with no exit route.
The agreement comes after a judge preliminarily blocked the use of tear gas without warning, finding that it was likely First Amendment violation. U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson held that police must stop using tear gas “except as a last resort to prevent significant threats to public safety.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit had alleged that tear gas was used without warning and while they were peacefully assembling, and that the gas, smoke, pepper spray, and other chemical agents were used to disperse protesters rather than to thwart any actual danger. In the days after the shooting became national news, images of the protests and police response portrayed a city reminiscent of a war zone, with police donning riot gear and tanks set against a fogged-over landscape, interspersed with bursts of smoke.
Tear gas was so ubiquitous that reporters said they could not go from the police station on one side of the town to their cars on the other because of tear gas en route. Police also reportedly fired tear gas into the backyards and homes of individuals who stood on their own property with their hands up. Despite some moves to scale back police response, plaintiffs reported arbitrary and prevalent tear gassings in a second round of protests after the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.
Kira Hudson Banks, a professor of psychology at St. Louis University, said she saw officers deploy tear gas against crowds of demonstrators that had assembled in designated “safe spaces” surrounding coffee shops on the night of the grand jury announcement. Around midnight, she and others that were part of a “multi-racial show of solidarity and peace” were deluged with tear gas by a mass of police that began to form a line, without any warning. “I’m running through the streets that I know, that I sometimes run through for exercise, away from tear gas,” she told MSNBC. “It was frustrating, frustrating because it didn’t have to be that way.”
Among the plaintiffs’ arguments was that tear gas is not benign; while it is a better option for violence prevention than lethal weapons, it provokes symptoms ranging from severe discomfort to temporary blindness and trouble breathing. Some have even died from tear gas deployed incorrectly.
The settlement applies to the St. Louis County and city police departments, as well as the Missouri State Patrol. All were involved in responding to protesters in the weeks and months following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. All three departments will also be subject to court oversight for three years as part of the settlement.
In a statement hailing the agreement, the Advancement Project said it is aware of only one other police department (Oakland’s) that has a policy limiting the use of tear gas.
The settlement is at least the second victory by protesters against police. Earlier this year, a judge held that police can no longer force protesters to “keep moving” in what has been dubbed the “five-second rule.” The ruling invalidated the police practice of threatening to arrest those they deemed to be standing still, including protesters who are peacefully praying, holding public gatherings, reporting the news, and informing others of their rights. These individuals had been corralled into assembly lines and told to keep moving.