WASHINGTON (AP) — Police violated the constitutional rights of protesters upset by the death in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed black man, lawyers told a federal judge Wednesday in urging he step in and curb the police.
Lawyers sought a temporary restraining order on Missouri police, who they say have unnecessarily intimidated demonstrators, assaulted them with tear gas and pepper spray, employed physical and verbal abuse, refused to identify visibly identify themselves when asked and categorically labeled demonstrations as unlawful assemblies.
"What they're doing is punishing people for being out protesting," said lawyer Thomas B. Harvey, who represents six St. Louis-area protesters who have been involved in what he called peaceful and lawful protesting. "It's having a chilling effect on their First and Fourth Amendment rights."
The summertime shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, and a grand jury's refusal to indict the white police officer involved sparked days of violent protests and racial unrest in the predominantly black community. Some residents and civil rights activists complained then that responding police officers were overly aggressive, noting their use of tear gas and surplus military vehicles and gear.
Since then, mostly lawful protests have spread across the state and country following a similar decision in New York City not to indict a white officer in the death of Eric Garner, who died gasping "I can't breathe" while police were trying to arrest him for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Named in the temporary restraining order are the Saint Louis city and county police chiefs, Sam Dotson and Jon Belmar, and Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Their three organizations were ordered by the governor to work as a unified command around the grand jury's announcement.
Sgt. Brian Schellman of St. Louis County Police referred requests for comment to the St. Louis County Counselor's office.
It was not immediately known when U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson in Saint Louis would make a decision on the request. It would only apply to police in Missouri.
The request for a temporary restraining order says that if it is not granted, protesters fear "their First Amendment rights will continue to be impeded in the future." Brown and Garner's families are expected to participate in a protest in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
Police often did not give warnings before firing tear gas at crowds, and when they gave warnings, would not give protesters a safe route to disperse as ordered, the complaint said. Officers, some who weren't wearing name tags, would fire tear gas at legal observers and at peaceful protesters , some of whom were trapped between clouds of tear gas and the officers firing them. Officers would also declare unilaterally declare crowds unlawful assemblies without attempting to determine whether anything unlawful was happening, Harvey said.
"We're not asking for crazy things here," Harvey said. "Wear your ID. If you're going to make your announcement to disperse, give people the right, a place, a way that they can comply with that order and if you're going to declare something an unlawful assembly, follow the statute."
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