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St. Louis Police Department apologizes to protesters for rights violations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2009 - The St. Louis Police Department has apologized to protesters for "extended detentions," property damage and unwarranted "infringement of civil liberties" during the 2003 World Agriculture Forum in St. Louis. The apology was announced Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued on behalf of protesters who claimed the city illegally searched homes and locked them up to keep them from demonstrating.

The city agreed to pay the four remaining plaintiffs about $13,500 each and to give the ACLU of Eastern Missouri $200,000 to compensate partially for attorneys' fees.

Gary Sarachan, a lawyer who represented the protesters, said it was a bittersweet ending to the lawsuit. "The sweetness is the letter acknowledging that the young people's rights were violated and the sweetness is that this sets a very nice tone for the future." The ACLU praised Police Chief Dan Isom for agreeing to apologize for the tactics of his predecessor, former Chief Joe Mokwa.

The bitter taste, from the ACLU's point of view, is that the lawsuit led to a disastrous federal appeals court ruling last year in which the court said that police officers could enter a condemned building without a warrant and search the building for contraband. The settlement does nothing to disturb that decision as the law in Missouri and the other Midwestern states in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The World Agricultural Forum in St. Louis occurred in the wake of violent demonstrations in Seattle, Boston and Washington, D.C., aimed at international agricultural policies. The FBI briefed St. Louis police on the history of these demonstrations and the violent tactics employed by some protesters. In other cities, protesters stayed in unoccupied or condemned buildings. St. Louis adopted a "Building Code Violation Enforcement Plan" to prevent condemned houses from being used in the same way. Protesters maintained that the intent was to block their peaceful protests.

Much of the ACLU lawsuit involved three incidents. One was a warrantless search of a condemned building at 3309 Illinois Ave., where five protesters were arrested and one, Trinity Cross, was allegedly strip-searched by a female officer in public view. The second was the search of a building at 3022 Cherokee St., allegedly destroying personal property of the owner Arthur Friederichs. The third was the arrest of a group of bicyclists for "riding a bicycle without a license" -- a charge that was not a crime at the time.

Sarachan said that the four current plaintiffs who will receive an award in the suit are Cross, Friederichs and two of the bicyclists.

The statement of the Board of Police Commissioners, which was approved last week, stated that it was "pleased to turn the page on this litigious chapter and to begin a new chapter marked by cooperation and progress toward our mutual goals of free, safe and appropriate expression of political views and continuing to ensure that the city of St. Louis remains a vibrant community that supports safe exercise of diversity of its citizenry.

"The department sincerely regrets the grievances of plaintiffs arising from the department's response ... including the extended detentions or damages of personal property. ... Infringement of civil liberties of the citizenry was not warranted by what may have transpired at protests in other cities. The department recognizes and values the importance of civil discourse in the community."

The plaintiffs had claimed that the police aim was to lock up the protesters in advance to keep them from carrying out their demonstration.

Chief Judge James B. Loken, who wrote the appeals court ruling against the protesters, said their was no First Amendment protection of violent protest, stressing that the search at 3309 Illinois had found a sign saying, "Kill Police," a bottle with a rag protruding, PVC pipes, a gasoline container and two cans of camper stove fuel.

Judge Kermit Edward Bye wrote a strong dissent in which he stated, "There is little question the plaintiffs were singled out because of their anticipated participation in the upcoming protest." Bye pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that authorities may not interfere with protests just because they fear violence.

In conclusion, he wrote, "Although this is not the first time the 'punitive machinery of government' has been employed to suppress protest speech ... by refusing to hold police officers accountable for their clearly unlawful conduct, our precedent ensures it will not be the last."

Rory Ellinger, a University City lawyer who practices in O'Fallon, was heavily involved in the early stages of the lawsuit. He said Monday, "I'm very pleased overall." Other lawyers involved, in addition to Sarachan, were William Quick and Sheila Greenbaum.

In response to a request for an interview with Isom, the police department issued a statement statement that Isom "thought a settlement was the best thing to do and that the department wanted to move forward. The board president also said he thought the settlement was appropriate and was much more preferable to lengthy litigation." The board president is Todd Epsten.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.