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St. Louis aldermen consider new limits on policing protests

St. Louis city police officers detain protesters downtown on Sept. 15, 2017 after the acquittal of Jason Stockley was announced.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis city police officers detain protesters downtown on Sept. 15, 2017 after the acquittal of Jason Stockley was announced.

St. Louis aldermen are weighing whether to put new limits on the way the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department interacts with protesters.

The Public Safety committee on Tuesday heard two hours of testimony in support of the bill sponsored by Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward. It’s modeled on an ordinance in place in Washington, D.C.

“[This bill] starts to develop a comprehensive protest response plan for the city of St. Louis. It’s one of the calls for action for us under the Ferguson Commission report,” Green said.

If Green’s legislation passes, St. Louis police officers would not be able to order everyone at a protest to leave unless there was an occurrence of violence — and officers would have to give protesters a clear path to leave once that order is given. Green’s bill also limits when officers can use chemical agents such as pepper spray, and reinforces the right of activists and the media to film police activity.

The legislation is similar to changes demanded in a lawsuit the ACLU of Missouri filed over how the department dealt with protests following the Jason Stockley verdict. ACLU of Missouri executive director Jeffrey Mittman said both Green’s bill and the federal court case are important tools in police reform.

“It is a false dichotomy to say that we can either have safety and policing that is empowered to protect individuals from violence and criminal activity, or we can have robust First Amendment rights,” he said.

Most of the committee members present agreed the department needs to change the way it polices protests. But Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, questioned the effectiveness of Green’s proposed changes.

“We aid the county, the county aids us, the Highway Patrol. What happens when they come in? Do we check them at the border?” he said. “These things need to be done in a much larger area.”

Supporters said they are working on changing police tactics at the state level as well.

The committee will hear at least another day of testimony on Green’s bill. It was not immediately clear when, or if, the committee would vote on the measure.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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