ST. LOUIS — Protesters asking a federal judge to regulate St. Louis police conduct have described being beaten and pepper-sprayed during recent demonstrations, but police defended their efforts to disperse sometimes unruly crowds.

At issue is a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed over what it calls “unlawful and unconstitutional action” during the demonstrations that followed the acquittal last month of former police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black motorist. The ACLU wants a preliminary injunction that would immediately regulate police activity during protests before the underlying lawsuit is heard, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Recent demonstrations were mostly peaceful, with a few instances of businesses windows being broken and items thrown at police. Some bystanders and at least two journalists were caught up in arrests, especially on Sept. 17, when more than 120 people were taken into custody in downtown St. Louis. Those arrests came after police used a process known as “kettling” to box in demonstrators and others.

St. Louis police Lt. Timothy Sachs said the crowd was given multiple warnings to disperse and told they could be arrested or subject to crowd control methods such as pepper spray.

Witnesses described being beaten and pepper-sprayed by police even when restrained with zip ties or complying with police orders. One protester named in the suit, Alison Drieth, said it felt like her face was “melting” after she was sprayed near City Hall.

But police witnesses said that they saw no inappropriate use of force. The police officials said people may have been sprayed while restrained if they were kicking at police or otherwise resisting the arrest.

Overseeing the case is U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, who has described some of the testimony she heard this week as “very, very concerning.” But Perry also has questioned whether solutions proposed by the ACLU suit would require her to “micro-manage things.”

Testimony will continue Monday morning with at least one more police witness and legal arguments from both sides.

Lawyers have yet to argue their case in person in front of Perry, but the ACLU says in court filings that police improperly declare crowds to be unlawful assemblies and order them to disperse and the rules for doing that are unconstitutionally vague.

Lawyers for the police say that the ACLU’s underlying lawsuit is likely to fail and that a preliminary injunction would prevent police from “acting quickly and decisively to prevent and quell violence and property damage committed by persons during protests.”


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com