Protests in St Louis, Missouri turn violent over acquittal of officer in police killing

Police are ordering crowds to disperse following the arrest of dozens over the weekend, during protests over the acquittal of Jason Stockley

18 September 2017, 10:00am
Protesters gather in St Louis on Friday 15 September (Photo: ABC News)
Protesters gather in St Louis on Friday 15 September (Photo: ABC News)
A largely peaceful protest in St Louis, Missouri turned violent on Sunday, as a handful of demonstrators protesting at the acquittal of a white police officer, over the fatal shooting of a black man in 2011, threw bottles in response to police making arrests.

Hundreds gathered for the third night in a row in the city of almost 320,000 people. Violence erupted the previous two nights, evoking memories of the riots following the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in nearby town of Ferguson.

More than 80 people were arrested as police in riot gear used pepper spray and arrested the demonstrators who had defied orders to disperse following a larger, peaceful protest.

At a news conference, Mayor Lyda Krewson noted that “the vast majority of protesters are non-violent,” and blamed the trouble on “a group of agitators.”

The events on Sunday began peacefully, just like the previous two nights. A police officer was making two arrests a few metres away from police headquarters, leading some to rush towards the officer, who then jumped in his car and reversed quickly through the crowd to get away, according to two Reuters journalists.

No-one was injured, however the crowd began confronting a police line and some threw bottles.

The St Louis police department said it had received reports of “significant property damage” on Sunday night and had ordered crowds to disperse in the area.

Jason Stockley, the officer who shot dead Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, has told a city newspaper he was “just not the guy” to blame.

During demonstrations on Friday night, according to police, 32 people were arrested and 10 officers injured. Late on Saturday in the Delmar Loop area of University City, a suburb about 10 miles west of downtown St Louis known for concert venues and night life, a group of demonstrators refused to disperse, broke windows and threw objects at police. Officers moved in with riot gear and armoured vehicles and the disturbances resulted in several arrests.

Missouri governor Eric Greitens said: “Saturday night, some criminals decided to pick up rocks and break windows. They thought they’d get away with it. They were wrong. Our officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.

“In the past, our leaders let people break windows, loot, start fires. They let them do it. Not this time. Tonight, the police arrested the vandals. At this moment, they’re all sitting in a jail cell. They’re gonna wake up and face felony charges.”

St Louis circuit judge Timothy Wilson ruled that the state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense” when he shot Smith, 24. Stockley shot Smith after the suspected drug dealer fled from officers trying to arrest him. Stockley, 36, testified he felt he was in danger because he saw Smith holding a silver revolver when he backed his car toward officers and then sped away.

Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car. The officer’s DNA was on the weapon but Smith’s was not. Dash-cam video from Stockley’s vehicle recorded him saying making a threat and less than 60 seconds later, he shot Smith five times.

“It feels like a burden has been lifted but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” Stockley told the Post-Dispatch. “The taking of someone’s life is the most significant thing one can do, and it’s not done lightly … My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters. I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this.”

The interview is the first time Stockley has publicly addressed the case. “I did not murder Anthony Lamar Smith,” he said. “I did not plant a gun.”

Stockley said he understood why video of the shooting looked bad. “Every resisting [arrest] looks bad, it never looks good,” he said. “So what you have to separate are the optics from the facts, and if a person is unwilling to do that, then they’ve already made up their mind and the facts just don’t matter. To those people, there’s nothing that I can do to change their minds.”

Judge Wilson found that the 15 seconds Stockley took to get out of his car, unholster his weapon and fire at Smith proved the incident was not an execution.

Stockley, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran, defended his use of an AK-47 with 100 rounds that he used to shoot Smith as justified, given the level of firepower he saw on the city’s streets.

“I used it as a deterrent and I believed it was better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” he told the paper. “I accept full responsibility for violating the rules. But it’s not a moral crime. It’s a rule violation.”

Stockley resigned in 2013 after a suspension for carrying the AK-47. Later he took a job with an oil company in Texas. It was not until May 2016 that he was charged with first-degree murder. He said that decision was “an emotional decision for personal and political reasons, not a legal one”.

The judge said there was no evidence proving the gun in Smith’s car had been planted, and it had been reasonable to believe Smith was reaching for a gun when he was shot.