Tensions were growing between protesters and police in St Louis Friday afternoon after a judge acquitted a former officer of murder in the 2011 shooting death of a black motorist.
By mid-afternoon some officers were changing into riot gear amid scattered reports of bottles and rocks being launched at police and reporters by demonstrators, although by mid-afternoon the protests remained mostly peaceful.
Police have made at least one arrest, and a number of demonstrators engaged in civil disobedience, such as blocking official vehicles. Local media said some protesters had been maced by officers.
Several city streets were closed down to allow for growing crowds, which have swelled beyond a “free speech zone” the city designated for demonstration.
Some protesters have taken to the streets carrying firearms and tactical gear, which is legal: Missouri is an open-carry state.
Missouri governor Eric Greitens put the national guard on alert leading up to the verdict and some military units have been seen moving from barracks into the city throughout the afternoon.
The protests were sparked by the acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley, who shot 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith five times with his own AK-47 assault rifle rather than his service weapon at the end of a high-speed chase. The officer said he saw Smith holding a gun and felt he was in imminent danger. Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after he shot him.
Assistant circuit attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial that police dashcam video showed Stockley saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it”. Less than a minute later, he shot and killed Smith. Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” during a dangerous police pursuit.
Thomas Harvey of Arch City Defenders, a St Louis civil rights law firm, said: “If police can announce they are going to murder, carry personal AK-47s, plant weapons and shoot unarmed people five times at close range with no consequences, no black man in America is safe.”
Stockley, 36, could have been sentenced to up to life in prison without parole. He left the St Louis police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.
It is unusual for officers to be charged with killing suspects on duty, and few have been convicted in such deaths, regardless of the circumstances. Stockley’s verdict was handed down by circuit judge Timothy Wilson, who oversaw the bench trial. Stockley requested that the case be heard by a judge rather than a jury despite objections from prosecutor – probably to avoid risking a jury with a substantially black composition.
On Monday, the city’s black police organization, the Ethical Society of Police, issued a letter calling for Stockley’s conviction based on the “physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, questionable tactics, and numerous violations of SLMPD policies/procedures”.
Before the verdict, activists in St Louis threatened civil disobedience if Stockley were acquitted, including possible efforts to shut down highways. Amid growing unease, the mayor and an attorney for Smith’s fiancee publicly urged for calm.
Governor Greitens met and assured black faith leaders that peaceful protesters’ rights would be protected, but said violence would not be tolerated.
Barricades went up on 28 August around police headquarters, the courthouse where the trial was held, and other sites of recent or potential protests. Police said they were trying to ensure safety “due to recent events around the country”.
The St Louis area has a history of unrest in such cases, including after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Protests, some of them violent, erupted after the black 18-year-old, who was unarmed, was killed by a white police officer. The officer was not charged but later resigned.
The Stockley ruling also comes on the heels of a travel advisory for black motorists in Missouri that was issued in August by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP cautioned people to “warn your families, co-workers and anyone visiting Missouri to beware of the safety concerns with travel in Missouri”, after the governor signed a bill rolling back civil rights protections that some activists called Jim Crow-esque.
n Smith’s case, the encounter began when Stockley and a fellow officer tried to corner Smith in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after seeing what appeared to be a drug deal. Stockley testified that he saw what he believed was a gun, and his partner yelled “Gun!” as Smith backed into the police SUV twice to get away.
Stockley’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, argued that Smith, a parole violater with previous convictions for gun and drug crimes, tried to run over the two officers. Stockley fired seven shots as Smith sped away. A chase ensued.
The defense claimed that at the end of the chase, Stockley opened fire only when Smith, still in his car, refused commands to put up his hands and reached along the seat “in the area where the gun was”.
Stockley said he climbed into Smith’s car and found a revolver stuffed between the center console and passenger seat.
Prosecutors questioned why Stockley dug into a bag in the back seat of the police SUV before returning to Smith’s car. The gun found in Smith’s car didn’t have his DNA on it, but it did have Stockley’s.
“The gun was a plant,” Steele said.
The case was one of several in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect. Officers were acquitted in recent police shooting trials in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
A case in Ohio twice ended with hung juries, and prosecutors have decided not to seek a third trial.