One of the defining elements the protests in Ferguson, Mo., is tear gas. But that is about to change.
In almost every photo of a confrontation between police and Ferguson demonstrators, there is either a tear-gas canister in mid-air or a cloud of the chemical weapon spreading through the crowd. For now, however, police in Ferguson and throughout St. Louis County may no longer use tear gas when confronting protesters.
Judge Carol Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued a temporary restraining order on Thursday directing police officers to stop using tear gas unless they first found that a gathering was an illegal assembly. In her ruling, she declared that officers’ preemptive use of tear gas to break up groups of protesters amounted to a violation of their constitutional rights.
The temporary order in the case, Templeton et al v. Dotson et al, remains in place until a hearing on January 6. Dotson, the lead defendant, is St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief D. Samuel Dotson III.
After a Ferguson police officer shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, and again after a grand jury declined to not indict that officer, protesters gathered in the city to express their outrage. Ferguson police often tear-gassed protesters without declaring an illegal assembly, giving them little if any time to disperse and further straining relations between the police and the community they ostensibly serve.
“The [protesters’] ability to engage in lawful speech and assembly is encumbered,” Jackson wrote in her opinion, “by a law enforcement response that would be used if a crime were being committed.”
On Twitter, a woman named Alexis who testified in the case shared her surprise and relief at Jackson’s decision.
“The public has a strong interest in protecting the right of individuals to peacefully protest,” Jackson wrote. “The [police] will not suffer any harm by the issuance of an order requiring them to make sure the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and others are protected.”