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Report: The no-fly zone in Ferguson targeted media, not public safety

A police officer watches over protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on October 22.
A police officer watches over protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on October 22.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When police in Ferguson, Missouri, instituted a no-fly zone during protests over the August 9 police shooting of Michael Brown, they said the restrictions were necessary to protect public safety. But telephone recordings obtained by the Associated Press suggest the police's primary interest was keeping news helicopters out.

Police originally said the no-fly zone was necessary to protect pilots after they claimed a police helicopter was shot at, but officials were later unable to provide an incident report for the supposed shooting.

Here's what the AP found:

"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. "But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on."

At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."

FAA procedures for defining a no-fly area did not have an option that would accommodate that.

"There is really ... no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK,'" he said. The managers then worked out wording they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.

The Kansas City FAA manager then asked a St. Louis County police official if the restrictions could be lessened so nearby commercial flights wouldn't be affected. The new order allows "aircraft on final (approach) there at St. Louis. It will still keep news people out. ... The only way people will get in there is if they give them permission in there anyway so they, with the (lesser restriction), it still keeps all of them out."

"Yeah," replied the police official. "I have no problem with that whatsoever."

During the protests, police also arrested dozens of journalists and tried to constrain media to an area out of sight of most the demonstrations. The attempts to control media were one of the many human rights abuses reported by Amnesty International in its report on the Brown shooting and Ferguson protests.