ST. LOUIS (AP) — Several journalism organizations have signed off on a letter to St. Louis’ mayor expressing concern about the arrests of reporters covering protests sparked by the September acquittal of a white former police officer in the 2011 killing of a black suspect.
The Committee to Protect Journalists sent the letter Tuesday to Mayor Lyda Krewson pointing out that at least 10 journalists have been arrested while covering the protests and that six reported that police used excessive force, including pepper-spray to the face and two instances where reporters’ faces were shoved into the ground.
“Journalists should not have to fear for their physical well-being at the hands of law enforcement when they cover newsworthy events. We ask you to conduct a thorough examination of cases in which reporters were assaulted or arrested and discipline individual officers found to have behaved unacceptably,” the letter states. It was signed by the leaders of 17 other media advocacy groups, including the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Krewson’s spokesman, Koran Addo, didn’t immediately reply to a Thursday voicemail or email seeking comment. But Krewson and Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation of how police have handled the arrests.
St. Louis has been dealing with protests since Sept. 15, when a judge acquitted Jason Stockley, a white former police officer, of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a black drug suspect, Anthony Lamar Smith, after a high-speed chase.
Most of the nearly 300 people arrested at protests, including all of the journalists, could face municipal charges, mostly failure to disperse. But City Counselor Julian Bond said he hasn’t yet decided whether to file charges against any of them, including the journalists. He has up to a year to decide.
Bush said the issue isn’t whether the person arrested was a protester or observer, but rather “whether or not they violated the law. It’s my intention to prosecute all persons that I have probable cause to believe violated the law, and no person who I don’t have probable cause to believe violated the law.”
The letter said Jon Ziegler, an independent live-streamer, was pepper-sprayed in the face with his head pushed into the ground on Sept. 17 during the mass arrest of around 120 people in downtown St. Louis. He alleged that police mocked his video reporting, calling him a “superstar.”
Mike Faulk, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported that police knocked him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him in the face, with one officer using his foot to push his head to the pavement. Documentary filmmaker Drew Burbridge alleged that he was beaten by police and repeatedly pepper-sprayed in the face.
The letter noted that more than two dozen reporters were arrested in protests in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.
“While these arrests fell outside city bounds, this combined legacy is a troubling signpost for journalists’ safety in the St. Louis area,” the letter states.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.