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Federal government opens civil rights investigation into St. Louis police

File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the St. Louis police violated the rights of protesters after the verdict in the Jason Stockley case.

Updated at 2:10 p.m. Nov. 20 with comments from Chief O'Toole — The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to investigate whether the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department violated the Constitution in the way it has handled recent protests demanding more police accountability.

Jeffrey Jensen, the federal prosecutor in St. Louis, announced the review in a brief statement Monday. It is based on a request made by Mayor Lyda Krewson and others, including U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City.

“The FBI-St. Louis division, the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri are investigating allegations of potential civil rights violations by law enforcement officers in the St. Louis area on Sept. 15, 2017, and in the weeks that followed,” Jensen said in a statement. “As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time.”

The protests began the day a St. Louis judge found a white former police officer, Jason Stockley, not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man. The vast majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful.

In separate statements, Krewson and the interim police chief, Lawrence O'Toole, said they were glad the investigation had begun. O'Toole pledged to assist federal officials however he could. In his own statement, Clay said he was "very gratified that U.S. Attorney Jensen and the Department of Justice have responded so quickly to my request for a civil rights investigation regarding the allegedly constitutional ‎actions by police after the Stockley verdict. The 1st Amendment is vital, because like our local police, it defends everyone. Both are essential to our country and our community.‎"

The NAACP Legal Defense fund also welcomed the investigation.

"But this is just the first step, and we will closely monitor how this investigation unfolds," the organization's policy director, Todd Cox, said in a statement. "The volume of complaints highlights the need for more systemic policing reform in St. Louis to ensure such police violence does not occur again."

If the DOJ finds violations, the St. Louis police department could be ordered to make major changes to the way it operates, as happened in Fergusonafter the 2014 death of Michael Brown. Last week, a federal judge ruled that tactics the police currently use to break up protests are likely unconstitutional. She ordered the department to limit when it uses chemical agents like pepper spray. Officers are also no longer allowed to break up a protest unless there is the threat of violence.

The ACLU of Missouri brought the lawsuit that resulted in last week’s ruling. In a statement, its legal director, Tony Rothert, said that while the federal investigation was important, “the city of St. Louis should proactively engage with the community now to develop a collaborative policing model that protects constitutional rights and promotes public safety.”

The St. Louis police did not immediately comment on Jensen’s announcement.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann


Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.