CLAYTON • A St. Louis County hearing Tuesday about police conduct during a protest last month descended into a shouting confrontation between protesters and a police defender, a woman who finally had to be escorted onto an elevator by officers through the angry crowd.
The disturbance began at a hearing of the county’s Justice and Health Committee, where County Council members were taking testimony about conduct by several police agencies during the Sept. 23 protest at the St. Louis Galleria, in which 22 people were arrested.
The protest was part of a series in and around St. Louis following last month’s acquittal of a white former city police officer in the shooting of a black suspect.
Multiple speakers alleged that police gave a brief verbal order to protesters to clear out of the popular Richmond Heights mall that day, but that it was inaudible to most people there, and that police then began indiscriminately arresting people.
“We know that the protest was peaceful” and the police command to disband “was unintelligible,” testified state Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights. “Witness after witness, people who don’t know each other … all said the same thing.”
They further alleged police used excessive force in making the arrests, and that some protesters later held in the St. Louis Justice Center weren’t allowed to post bail, were denied contact with attorneys and in some cases were denied prescription medicine.
“It was clear to me that there was no legitimate reason for arresting so many people … in so violent a manner,” testified James Croft of the Ethical Society of St. Louis. He and others suggested some officers should face misconduct charges.
No representative of the county police department attended the hearing, despite a request from the committee.
Sgt, Shawn McGuire later issued a statement that said: “Chief (Jon) Belmar notified the County Counsel (sic) that he would not be in attendance. The topics being discussed involve criminal charges and documented uses of force by our police officers, which are both currently under investigation. Furthermore, The Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian oversight board, is already reviewing any issues stemming from the civil unrest at the Galleria Mall.”
Instead, Herbert Bernsen, the county’s director of justice services, sent a written statement defending the officers’ conduct at the mall and the decision later to lock down the Justice Center.
“Suffice it to say, emotions were running high among the protesters” who gathered outside the Justice Center, wrote Bernsen. He maintained the decision to lock down the facility was out of concern for the safety of both the staff and the protesters.
“I am extremely proud of my staff’s performance that day, especially in light of the sensitive issues involved,” Bernsen wrote.
Among the long string of speakers at the hearing, just one spoke in favor of the police. The woman wouldn’t give her name to reporters but was listed on the meeting’s agenda as Pattie Ann. She wore a T-shirt that read “We Support the Thin Blue Line,” and she shook hands and thanked officers on duty at the meeting.
The several dozen protesters in the meeting heckled her through much of her defense of the police, which included her assertion that the protesters had no right to protest in the mall because it is private property.
She argued back at them from the podium, an argument that later spilled out into the hallway of the county government building. Officers ultimately surrounded her and shuffled her onto an elevator as protesters around her shouted at her.
The committee took no action during the meeting.