The Trump administration’s willingness to get involved in local policing matters is about to be tested.
The Justice Department is evaluating St. Louis‘ request for an independent investigation into how city police responded to recent protests and to see whether federal intervention is needed.
Carrie Costantin, the acting U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Missouri, said she asked city officials last week to turn over any “credible evidence alleging a deprivation of rights by a law enforcement officer.”
Her office also has forwarded St. Louis‘ request for a third-party review to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The referral comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has attempted to retreat from the previous administration’s use of court-mandated agreements to monitor local law enforcement — a process he said maligns departments for the bad behavior of a few officers.
But as police and protesters have faced off numerous times in St. Louis over the last month — with 306 people arrested during demonstrations — activists say more needs to be done to reform police practices.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit accusing police of violating demonstrators’ civil rights during a Sept. 17 protest in which 123 people were arrested, saying officers didn’t warn protesters to disperse. The lawsuit says police forced witnesses to stop videotaping and used pepper spray on people who were restrained.
“There are unfortunately ongoing, multiple instances of arbitrary unconstitutional acts by police,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Missouri ACLU. “What is most important now is those need to stop.”
The ACLU has asked a federal judge for an injunction to require police to adopt new protocols for dealing with protesters. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.
The protests arose from the Sept. 15 acquittal of white former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who had faced murder charges from the 2011 fatal shooting of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man suspected of drug crimes.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said more than a dozen grievances from the protests had been lodged with the police department’s Internal Affairs Division. They asked for the third-party investigation.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the referral, but a department official previously characterized the St. Louis protests and complaints as “very much a state and local situation.” Still, the official said the department was “monitoring the situation on the ground, and is ready and willing to be helpful at the request of local authorities.”
Mr. Sessions has been critical of the role the Justice Department played in initiating court-mandated police reform agreements with local law enforcement under the Obama administration and has backed away from using such consent decrees.
The department also has announced it would no longer use a Community Oriented Policing Services program to address concerns about officer use of force and instead would focus the initiative on reducing violent crime.
Reform activists said they don’t expect the Trump administration to take an active role, and they’re instead counting on the courts to step in.
“Right now, given the attitude of the Justice Department, I believe that litigation seeking to vindicate fundamental constitutional rights and principles really is going to be the most effective means to get remedy for these constitutional violations,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which successfully sued D.C. police over unconstitutional mass arrests in World Bank protests in 2002.
She said the St. Louis police appeared to be willfully and plainly violating people’s constitutional rights.
“The law is clear: You can’t mass-arrest groups of people without probable cause. You can’t use pepper spray against large groups of people who are not doing anything,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said. “They were clearly acting against people with an extreme breadth of violence but also with a level of sadism.”
While Mr. Mittman said the DOJ’s assistance could be helpful in ensuring police reforms are adopted, he said nothing is stopping elected officials and the community from engaging in discussions that can advance reform.
“Would we rather have the DOJ? Absolutely. Does it mean we can’t do it ourselves? Absolutely not,” he said.
St. Louis City Counselor Julian Bush said officials are confident that court proceedings in the ACLU lawsuit “will result in a just disposition that will protect the safety, persons and property of all.”
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