St. Louis—On Wednesday, March 31, Judge Audrey G. Fleissig of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri ruled that an ACLU of Missouri lawsuit filed against St. Louis City police officers and the City of St. Louis challenging the use of chemical munitions after a protest should move forward to a jury trial. The lawsuit alleges that the deployment of chemical munitions from a military-grade armored vehicle in 2015—after the plaintiffs had dispersed from a protest following the killing of Mansur Ball-Bey by a St. Louis City officer—was retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.
On August 19, 2015, the day St. Louis City police officer Kyle Chandler killed 18-year-old Mansur Ball-Bey in St. Louis’ Fountain Park neighborhood, neighbors and others gathered to protest and publicly mourn near the intersection of Walton and Page. Eventually, officers ordered protestors to disperse. Two plaintiffs, Sarah Molina and Christina Vogel, both attorneys who attended the protest as legal observers wearing neon-green hats to identify themselves as such, witnessed officers in armored vehicles following demonstrators who were obeying police orders to disperse and firing chemical munition projectiles at them.
Like the protestors, Molina and Vogel also left the Walton and Page intersection. They fled to Molina’s own property on a residential stretch of Euclid, several blocks away from the dispersal order. Armored police vehicles followed dispersing pedestrians into the residential area off of Page. On a police recording captured at the scene, then-St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson can be heard exclaiming, “What the f**k are they doing chasing them there?”
Some minutes later, Molina and Vogel were standing on the sidewalk in front of Molina’s property on Euclid, with a handful of others, when they saw and heard a police helicopter hovering overhead. The group then witnessed an armored vehicle barrelling down the residential street. Fearing for their safety, Molina and Vogel sought cover in the gangway between her property and a neighboring property while officers deployed chemical munitions at them from the vehicle.
A third plaintiff, Peter Groce, was directly shot with a chemical munition canister for telling officers to remove their armored vehicle from the grass in Fountain Park.
The City of St. Louis and the defendant police officers argued in court that the scene was chaotic and intense at the time munitions were deployed at Molina and Vogel. The court remarked that, “[o]verall, the video footage from Page at that time of the event totally contradicts Defendants’ characterization of ongoing unlawful assembly or high conflict.” In allowing the plaintiffs’ claim of First Amendment retaliation to proceed to a jury, the court commented that the defendants’ arguments—that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the officers had recognized them as protestors and acted with retaliatory motive—“seem to imply that . . . they shot canisters at individuals whom they believed had nothing to do with the protests.” The court stated that position was “illogical and also untenable on the present record.”
The court also denied the City’s request to dismiss the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim against it, in addition to their claim against the individual officers. Citing the plaintiffs’ evidence that St. Louis City officers had engaged in similar conduct against protestors on more than a dozen other occasions, the court held that there were triable questions of fact and “a jury could find that the City’s customs and practices permit officers to deploy chemical munitions in an indiscriminate and retaliatory manner in violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.”