Civil Liberties

St. Louis County Police Violate Court Order By Arresting Journalist Standing on Sidewalk

And nobody seems to be in charge as grand jury decision looms


Cops in Ferguson
Aaron Malin

A credentialed member of the media was arrested in Ferguson around 11:40 pm Saturday night. The arrest appeared to violate a court order issued Friday prohibiting the police from arresting law-abiding journalists.

Lieutenant Jerry Lohr of the Saint Louis County Police Department later told myself and other members of the media that the journalist was arrested for "failure to disperse" from a street, despite the fact that I, as well as approximately one hundred other protesters and media clearly witnessed the arrest take place on the sidewalk.

Saint Louis County police then tweeted from their official account that Trey Yingst, a reporter from D.C., had been arrested for failure to disperse because he "was asked to leave street by the commander and refused." The tweet was met with a backlash of dozens of contradicting reports, photos, and videos from individuals on the scene who saw what I saw: a reporter being arrested for taking photos on a public sidewalk.

The Saint Louis County Police Department tweet refers to Lieutenant Vollmer as "the commander," but the other Lieutenant on scene disagreed. When I asked which of the two lieutenants was in charge, Lieutenant Lohr said "well, it's kind of a…unified command" which roughly translates to "no one is responsible for what happens here." 

At least Lieutenant Lohr was willing to talk to media. He made a clear effort throughout the evening to engage respectfully with protesters and media. He spent a lot of time throughout the evening answer questions from protesters who wanted to talk with him, and was extremely courteous in dealing with my relatively critical line of questioning. After watching the other out-of-control lieutenant arrest a journalist in an outburst of rage, I asked Lt. Lohr why he wasn't the one dealing with protesters:

MALIN: Is he another on-scene commander?

Lt. LOHR: Yeah, he's a lieutenant from the county.

MALIN: Ok, so who is in charge on-scene? Is it him, or you? Or…

Lt. LOHR: Well, it's kind of a….unified command.

MALIN: Ok, I'll be blunt with you. He's being a jackass, and you're being extremely polite.

Lt. LOHR: I know. 

MALIN: Don't you think it would be better for you to deal with the protesters and not him?

Lt. LOHR: Whose water is this?

RYAN REILLY: I don't know. It doesn't look open to me.

Lt. LOHR: I'm really thirsty.

MALIN: I don't blame you, but I think that was a fair question.

Lt. LOHR: No no no no, I understand what you're saying. If you're asking me—you know, I mean, ultimately the deal is, is, my approach may be different than his, but we're trying to accomplish the same goal.

MALIN: Right.

Lt. LOHR: And whether you like it or not, uLt.imately you can't block the road.

MALIN: He wasn't in the road. He was on the sidewalk.

Lt. LOHR: Here's the deal—essentially, basically, this is a failure to disperse situation.

RYAN REILLY: He was—that guy wasn't in the road. He was standing on the sidewalk.

Lt. LOHR: Ok, well I wasn't down there, all right? I was up here.

MALIN: Ok. Let me ask you another question. Are you familiar with the court order that came down Friday?

Lt. LOHR: Yeah, for… well…

MALIN: The one keeping you guys from arresting journalists.

Lt. LOHR: Well no, it says—well, okay yes I am familiar with that.

MALIN: Yes, okay. How do you think that interacts with the arrest that just happened?

Lt. LOHR: I think if you break the law you can be arrested.

RYAN REILLY:  He wasn't breaking the law. Everybody saw.

The Saint Louis County Police Department blatantly violated a one-day-old court order that, among other things:

Ordered that Defendant County of St. Louis, Missouri, its officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, and all persons under their supervision, or within their control, are permanently enjoined from interfering with individuals who are photographing or recording at public places but who are not threatening the safety of others or physically interfering with the ability of law enforcement to perform their duties.

With hundreds of lawyers in St. Louis to observe the police response to protests, tonight's arrest seems likely to result in a court challenge. I'll keep you updated on that story and others in the coming days.