First Amendment

Are police in Ferguson violating the Constitution?

Updated: Another night of confrontations between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, is raising questions about the town’s response to unrest after an officer’s shooting of an unarmed teen.

Police asked protesters to disperse before nightfall and responded to crowds Wednesday night with tear gas, rubber bullets, sonic cannons, smoke bombs and armored trucks, report the New York Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press. Some in the crowd threw objects and Molotov cocktails at the officers, spurring St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar to say his officers have reacted with incredible restraint. Two reporters—from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post—were arrested in a McDonald’s and released “without charges or an explanation,” the New York Times says.

The police reaction led a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News to assert that Ferguson officials “were systematically shredding the U.S. Constitution.” Columnist Will Bunch criticized “boneheaded policing” and asserted violations of the right to assemble, freedom of speech and press.

Meanwhile the New York Times examines whether the public has the right to information about the shooting of Michael Brown, 18, on Saturday. Police say the shooting followed a struggle for the officer’s gun, but witness accounts said Brown had his hands in the air when shot.

Police have refused to name the officer who shot Brown or to release the number of times that Brown was shot. The New York Times spoke with University of California at Irvine law dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who said there is no First Amendment right to information about government activities, including internal police reports. Disclosure laws vary by state.

The Missouri sunshine law is being cited by groups seeking more information on Brown’s shooting. The Missouri office of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked for unredacted copies of incident reports on the shooting, while the National Bar Association has also filed a records request. Police departments must comply with such requests in three days unless an exception is warranted. The next step would be a lawsuit.

On Thursday, President Obama expressed concern about the events in Ferguson and called for a transparent investigation, report the New York Times and ABC News. “There is never excuse for violence against the police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama said. “There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail.”

Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced at a Thursday afternoon press conference that security in Ferguson will be turned over to the Missouri Highway Patrol, Time reported. Nixon said that the town “looked a little bit more like a war zone, and it’s not acceptable,” and that he hoped police would present a “softer front.”

At the same event, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said officials should “demilitarize the police response” in Ferguson. She told reporters it was her understanding that St. Louis County police would no longer be used for policing the protesters. The New York Times also says county police will no longer handle protests, citing “officials” as the source.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also announced in a statement Thursday that the Department of Justice “is offering—through our COPS office and Office of Justice Programs—technical assistance to local authorities in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”

The hacker group Anonymous claimed it had the name of the officer who shot Brown, and released a name and picture purportedly from the person’s Facebook profile (which has since been removed) on Twitter. But police said the person named by Anonymous was not even an officer with county or Ferguson police. Twitter responded by suspending the account of Anonymous, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports in a separate story.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?”

Subsequent coverage: “Name of officer in Ferguson shooting is released; ACLU sues for incident reports”

Last updated at 5:50 p.m. with announcements from Nixon and Holder and on Aug. 15 to note subsequent coverage.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.