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Calling pepper spray 'the new fire hose,' ACLU asks judge to limit response to protests

St. Louis police arrest a protester in September, 2017.
File Photo |Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis police arrest a protester in September, 2017.

Two protesters testified on Monday that they did not receive a warning before St. Louis police deployed pepper spray on them on Sept. 15.

The American Civil Liberty Union of Missouri claims that police officers violated the constitutional rights of protesters following St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson's Sept. 15 decision to find former police officer Jason Stockley not guilty in the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith.

The ACLU has asked U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry to order police to limit when officers can give dispersal warnings or use chemical agents.

"Right now in St. Louis, pepper spray is the new fire hose," Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said during his closing argument.

Derek Laney, a protester from St. Louis, testified that after walking toward a MetroBus that held police on Sept. 15, officers pushed him backward using their bikes. He said officers then used pepper spray on him without warning. A video taken by a bystander was shown in the courtroom to corroborate this account.

“To assault me with a bike is not a warning,” Laney said.

The Rev. Karen Yang said she “was standing in solidarity with my community” the day the verdict was announced and had linked arms with other protesters. She said police gave her no warning before using pepper spray on her.
The protesters’ statements contradicted testimony last week from Sgt. Matthew Karnowski, who said he told protesters at the front of the bus that police would use chemical agents if they did not remove themselves from the area.

Rothert told the judge that police officers are allowed too much discretion in response to protesters. He said St. Louis’ police should adopt community policing models and de-escalation techniques.

“I hope we’ve educated the police a little bit on what they could be doing differently to help reduce the tensions and address the questions that give rise to the protests other than exacerbate them,” he said after the hearing.

Anthony Relys, an attorney for the city of St. Louis, said the ACLU’s motion to limit police action in response to protesters would hinder the police’s ability to protect public safety.

Relys said in his closing argument Monday that the ACLU’s evidence from the first weekend of protests reflect isolated events and do not represent a pattern of practice by police.

Perry said she will issue a ruling after reviewing all evidence.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter: @ChelSeaport