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St. Louis police officers testify arrest and chemical warnings to protesters were clear

File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Police apprehend someone said to have thrown a water bottle at a demonstration in late September. Protesters, who discourage throwing objects during protests, encouraged the man to take responsibilty for his actions.

Three St. Louis police officers told a federal judge on Thursday that the police response to protesters in St. Louis on Sept. 17 was handled lawfully under police policies.

Their testimony came on the second day of hearings on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Missouri. The suit alleged that officers violated the constitutional rights of protesters when they used chemical agents and arrested protesters and bystanders without warning.

Sgt. Brian Rossomano told U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry that police ordered the crowd to to disperse. But ACLU officials say St. Louis police officers are allowed too much discretion when responding to the protesters.

“The police, in their assertions, believe that they have wide-ranging authority to determine when there’s a lawful assembly, or how long an order of dispersal, or how wide-ranging it is,"  said Jefferey Mittman, executive director of the Missouri brach of the American Civil Liberties Union. "That kind of arbitrary authority is when there are problems that First Amendment rights are not protected.”

Protests have continued since Sept. 15, when St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson ruled that former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who is white, was not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man.

On the first night of protests, police arrested 33 people in the Central West End. On Sept. 17, police arrested more than 120 people, rounding up protesters and others in a "kettle" operation. That's when police surrounded and closed in on a group.

Perry asked for the specifics regarding what constitutes an unlawful assembly. She also pressed officers to explain the point that dispersal orders are given and how clear officers' instructions were to protesters when informing them where to go.

Rossomano, Lt. Timothy Sachs and Sgt. Matthew Karnowski testified that St. Louis police policies do not specify who can declare an unlawful assembly or give a dispersal order, and that the decision can vary depending on the situation. They told the judge that police actions in response to protesters were appropriate under the law.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU Missouri, questioned the officers about gaps of sometimes two hours between when officers first ordered a crowed to disperse and when police made arrests. When Rothert asked if the delay made police warnings less effective, the officers said protesters had plenty of time to leave the area.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Monday.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter: @ChelseaSeaport