St. Louis County officials took a year to do it, but they're now going after demonstrators and journalists who were arrested during the largely peaceful 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown.
The Huffington Post's Mariah Stewart and Ryan Reilly reported on Tuesday that at least three professional journalists (including Reilly), a pastor, a young student muralist, a legal observer, and iconic photo subjects — like Edward Crawford, who was captured on camera as he tossed a tear gas canister out of a crowd — are among those being ordered back to court.
Many of the charges are for allegedly "interfering with a police officer in performance of his duties." That alone is a matter of concern — these types of vaguely worded charges are notoriously abused by police to arrest and use force against people for doing something that a cop just doesn't like. And that kind of abuse only leads to more distrust toward law enforcement.
The arrests in Ferguson fostered distrust against police
The arrests were always a major source of criticism against police in Ferguson, with critics characterizing them as an attempt to illegally suppress largely peaceful demonstrations. Many of the arrests were based on a police order that protesters keep moving at all times — a demand that a federal court later deemed unconstitutional.
Some of the arrests were so bad that even St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar publicly called them into question. The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy and Wesley Lowery reported in October:
The breaking point for Belmar with the Ferguson department's handling of recent protests came last week, when arrests that were captured on video by a CNN freelance journalist showed a loud but otherwise peaceful group of protesters demonstrating outside the Ferguson police station. The protesters were ordered to move from the street to the sidewalk, and as the group raced back, an officer in a brown uniform was recorded saying, "Get them."
Belmar said he watched the video at home and decided that night that his department would take over the crowd-control efforts. He said the incident illustrated problems he hopes to eliminate, in which protesters are arrested based on an arbitrary application of rules and laws, a frustration also held in the halls of the Justice Department.
"They were arrested for violating a noise ordinance. I hadn't noticed us enforcing that," he said. "So I wondered why, all of a sudden, why are we doing this now?"
These types of arrests only sowed more distrust toward police, which was the main reason many protesters were out there in the first place. Not only did demonstrators feel like police abused their power by shooting Brown, but they also felt that police's reaction to the demonstrations — from the deployment of tear gas to petty arrests — violated their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble and show their discontent. And now, St. Louis county officials are reopening these old wounds by bringing up charges for the year-old arrests.
Crawford described his arrest in an interview with Vox, portraying his arrest as a genuinely terrifying — and allegedly excessive — show of force by police. "They surrounded the car. It was like something you'd see in a movie. They pulled on the door handle, telling me to unlock the door. I didn't. I was actually scared," he said. "One guy, a police officer, smashed the window with his baton. They pulled me out by my hair and shirt, and slammed me on the ground. I felt the knee on my back. They forced my head to the ground. They were beating me, kicking me."
The distrust these kinds of arrests create isn't just bad from a public relations standpoint — it also makes the police's job much harder, since it makes the community less likely to cooperate with law enforcement during future investigations.
Concerns over the distrust toward police are so prominent that the federal government has stepped in to help law enforcement repair community relations. Last year, the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice to promote community cooperation and reduce bias in policing. The Obama administration has also encouraged the use of police body cameras and better data collection of police shootings to increase transparency and accountability. And the administration limited local and state police departments' access to military-grade equipment to address concerns raised by overly aggressive police tactics during the protests in Ferguson.
But by bringing charges for old arrests that many people — even the county police chief and a federal court — saw as unnecessary, the county government is reminding Ferguson and the rest of the nation why law enforcement lost the public's trust to begin with.