A civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of protestors in Ferguson has resulted in an unusual commitment from police agencies in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County to abstain from using tear gas or any other chemical agent as a means of breaking up peaceful demonstrations. According to Denise Lieberman, an attorney who represented the protestors, the agreement followed testimony from people who protested in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and told the court that “police were gratuitously using tear gas and other chemical agents for the purpose of squelching first amendment activity.” Images of aggressive and military-style police action against demonstrators last summer shocked the country, and set off a national debate about the use of non-lethal weapons by law enforcement.
Under the agreement, police officers will still be able to use chemical agents in response to illegal activity, but they will have to give fair warning before they do and provide people an opportunity to leave the scene. That will mean issuing “a clear order to disperse and clearly telling people that if they fail to disperse, they will be subject to arrest and/or chemical munition,” said Lieberman, a senior attorney at the civil rights organization the Advancement Project.
The judge presiding over the suit declined to specify a length of time that officers would have to wait after issuing a warning.
According to a press release issued by the Advancement Project, the agreement is “unprecedented,” and, to the best of their knowledge, the only other police agency in the country with policies that limit the use of chemical agents is the Oakland Police Department. Whether that’s true or not is hard to say without doing a comprehensive study of law enforcement policies around the country, but last year, a police spokesman in San Francisco was quoted as saying that his department has a similar policy against using tear gas or rubber bullets for the purpose of crowd control.
Skeptics might argue that the restrictions imposed on police will limit their ability to control unruly crowds. But Lieberman said the agreement includes a provision concerning “violent exigent circumstances, where something turns immediately violent and the police have to take immediate action in order to avert a legitimate threat to themselves and others.” Also, there’s reason to think that the use of chemical agents by police actually aggravates protest situations: a study led by UC Berkeley sociologist Nicholas Adams, which involved an analysis of Occupy protests in nearly 200 American cities, found that when police officers used aggressive tactics against protesters, the likelihood of violence erupting went up, not down.