St. Louis prosecutor wants independent team to investigate police shootings

Protesters stop traffic  in St. Louis. After exiting the highway, most of the group was arrested for being on the interstate on Oct. 3.

Story highlights

  • Two proposals come amid days of protests after officer's acquittal
  • Bill proposes limiting police use of pepper spray and tear gas

(CNN)St. Louis officials are reviewing new legislative proposals amid heightened tensions in the city after last month's acquittal of a former police officer who killed a black man in 2011.

One proposal to the city Board of Aldermen this week looks to take the investigation process of police-involved shootings out of police jurisdiction. The other bill, supported by the ACLU, would limit police force during demonstrations and protect protesters' First Amendment rights.
The proposals come as authorities have made hundreds of arrests and police treatment of protesters has been called into question since demonstrations erupted after the Sept. 15 acquittal of former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Video footage also surfaced of officers using tear gas to disperse crowds during protests.
    In the latest roundup, police arrested 143 protesters for trespassing Tuesday night when the crowd blocked traffic on a local highway, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

    Officer-involved shooting investigations

    Newly elected chief prosecutor Kim Gardner is challenging the way officer-involved shootings are policed.
    "As you know Officer-involved shootings are very difficult to prove even with the best evidence," she said to the board Tuesday. "We have an obligation to this community to hold police to a higher standard. It is no longer acceptable for police to be essentially investigating themselves."
    Gardner proposed a new Circuit Attorney's Office unit of five investigators, four prosecutors and two support staff that would be strictly dedicated to investigating police-involved shootings and excessive force cases.
    This would mean the dissolution of the current police-run investigatory unit that oversees such investigations. Gardner requested that the board reallocate 0.01% of the police budget to fund the unit, requesting roughly $1.3 million.
    She later said that in such shootings "we must re-examine not just how we prosecute these cases but how investigate them."
    Gardner stressed that the new office unit would lead the on-scene investigation of a police-involved shooting and control the evidence flow.
    She also stressed that the police internal administrative review should be suspended until the conclusion of the Circuit Attorney's Office investigation, and the local police officer association should strictly represent officers as clients on a need-basis rather than be involved in the investigation as they are now.

    New policy to protect protesters

    The ACLU already has filed lawsuits with the city citing police officials' unconstitutional treatment of protesters.
    "We are deeply concerned with the reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement officers at a demonstration Friday night in downtown St. Louis. It appears that officers yet again have demonstrated hostility toward the U.S. Constitution and the rights of the people by gratuitously using pepper spray and Tasers in a crowd," ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert said in a statement.
    Journalists and Missouri State representative Bruce Franks were among the 143 protesters arrested on Tuesday.
    The Board of Aldermen is set to review a new bill supported by the ACLU this week aiming to limit police capabilities during peaceful demonstration.
    "I think what we have seen is an escalation in police response to protests since Ferguson," Alderwoman Megan Green said.
    Green, who has been working with the ACLU on the bill, says tensions are at a point where it's going to "continue until we get some real policy in place" where police can be held accountable.
    "I will protect people's constitutional right to peacefully protest, but violence will not be tolerated. We will protect people's lives, homes, and communities," Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens wrote on social media.
    The nights after the verdict was handed down, some protesters threw rocks at the St. Louis Mayor's house.
    The bill would set requirements regarding mass arrests, including that people need to be processed and released within 4 hours of the arrest unless they are being held and charged.
    It would also cite protection for the press and the people who are documenting demonstrations, stating that police cannot interfere with the ability to document, watch, and record. This would extend to live-streamers as well, not just credentialed press.

    The case that reignited protests

    Initially, state and federal authorities did not prosecute Stockley. After riotous protests grabbed national attention in the wake of the police-involved fatal shooting of Michael Brown, then-St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged Stockley with first-degree murder in May 2016, citing new evidence.
    Stockley left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in August 2013. Later that year, the St. Louis police board settled a wrongful death suit with Smith's family for $900,000.
    The fatal shooting occurred on Dec. 20, 2011, when Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, tried to stop Smith after witnessing a suspected drug transaction in a restaurant parking lot, according to a police department report obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
    The court argument focused on whether Smith was armed and reaching for a gun when Stockley shot him.
    Critics say Stockley planted the gun.
    In his ruling, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson said the state failed to prove that Stockley did not act in self-defense.
    Judge Wilson said in his verdict memorandum that it wouldn't be unusual for Smith to have a gun.
    "An urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly," the judge wrote.
    St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said she was "disappointed" by the decision.