Civil Liberties

Audio Recordings Reveal That Ferguson Flight Ban Was to Keep Media Out



When clashes between protestors and police in Ferguson, Missouri grew heated this summer after the police shooting of Michael Brown, local law enforcement requested a ban on low-flying aircraft over the scene.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) complied, and eventually renewed the ban, again at police request. The initial FAA order came after reports that shots had been fired at a police helicopter, and both orders indicated that they were intended "to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities." 

But the real reason for the tiny, domestic no-fly zone was to keep the news media out.

The Associated Press obtained audio recordings showing "that local authorities privately acknowledged the purpose was to keep away news helicopters during violent street protests." Indeed, it's not even entirely clear that the helicopter shooting incident ever happened. 

The AP reports that the FAA actually struggled to design a flight ban that would restrict media flyovers but not interfere with normal commercial flight, which wasn't viewed as a problem. After a while, the audio recordings reveal, they gave up and admitted the real reason they wanted the restrictions: 

"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. "But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.

At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."

Police repeatedly claimed that the ban was due to the shots they said were fired at a law enforcement helicopter. There's little evidence that this actually happened. Back to the AP: 

Police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed "rumors."

As I said at the time, the "police safety" justification was always a stretch. Was a news helicopter really going to create a dangerous environment for the police? If anything, helicopters would be far less obtrusive than mass of trucks and reporters who clogged the scene in August. But news helicopters also would have shown a clearer, more comprehensive view of what was happening—the size and movements of the protests, the relative size and formations of police forces, the side-street incidents that, on many nights, were reported but hard to verify.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into the shooting that started this all, the police behavior during the aftermath is hard to justify. It's plain that the local law enforcement didn't want the public to know or see what was happening. Throughout the protests, they treated the media with contempt, illegally demanding that they stop filming, making violent threats, and arresting journalists on the scene. 

And now we know that they had airspace blocked off specifically to keep the media from the space where the view of the scene would have been clearest, and then pretended that the real justification was something other than what it was. This wasn't about police safety so much as it was about public scrutiny. That's what the police were really trying to protect themselves from.