After a night of protests following the fatal police shooting of Antonio Martin, an 18-year-old African American, in Berkeley, St. Louis County Chief of Police Jon Belmar told reporters that things have changed -- at least when it comes how the police respond.
“Tactical operations showed up, but they staged. They never went down to the scene, they were there just in case,” Belmar said.
Protests erupted after Martin's shooting death Tuesday night. Police say that Martin pointed a pistol at a Berkeley police officer in the parking lot of a Mobil gas station in the 6800 block of North Hanley Road. They also quickly released video on YouTube that they say supports this account of the incident.
Repeatedly during the press conference early Wednesday morning, Belmar referred to the incident as a “tragedy” and praised Berkeley Police Chief Frank McCall.
“We have learned a lot from August and October and certainly November about how to deal with it,” Belmar said. “I know Chief McCall talked with my commanders about the fact that, ‘hey, let’s let this emotion vent. Let’s let this happen.’”
In August, the St. Louis County police department was widely criticized for stationing heavily armed police officers at protests in Ferguson, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American. The images of officers in riot gear, armored vehicles and tear gas sparked debate about a militarized approach to policing.
This time, in Berkeley, police did use pepper spray to disperse a crowd of protesters after three small explosive devices, assembled out of fireworks, were thrown at officers. When protesters temporarily blocked Interstate-170 near the Mobil gas station, police again used pepper spray on some people in the demonstration.
That may have been a reaction to a recent court ruling. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order earlier this month that requires police to give adequate warning before deploying tear gas at lawful protests and to ensure people have safe exit routes.
Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said police have always had the option to take a softer approach.
“Where I think the real learning has occurred is when to come down forcefully and ask a crowd to disband as opposed to permitting the crowd to remain on the scene as long as members of the crowd are being peaceful,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s not an easy judgment.”
Rosenfeld said as protests have continued, police have had time to refine their approach and techniques.
“Because of this movement, the police have no choice but to change policy,” said David Whitt, an organizer with the group Cop Watch, of how law enforcement handles demonstrations.
Whitt lives in the Canfield Green apartment complex, near the epicenter of where large demonstrations first broke out in Ferguson this past August.
“There has been some change, but it’s been minimal compared to the larger issues that need to be addressed,” Whitt said.
Norman White, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University, said months of demonstrations have prompted police to change course.
“If you are trying to police (the protesters) in the traditional ways -- the over policing, the militarized policing, threatening arrest, threatening police shows of force -- (it) is really not something that they’re fearful of,” White said. “In fact, I think it pushes to make protests continue. Protesters are trying to make a point that this systemic approach to dealing with them and their community has been wrong for a long time and they’re tired of it.”
Like White, Rosenfeld said the real issue at play isn’t how protests are policed, but the underlying conditions that have led to deadly confrontations between police and young African Americans.
“They’re all tragic, no matter how culpable the person killed in the incident was,” Rosenfeld said. “They’re all young men who should not have lost their lives at the hands of a police officer or in any other way at that stage in their lives. So, what brings a young man and a police officer together in a scene that leads to the use of lethal force? That’s the fundamental, systemic question. That’s the question that needs to be at the forefront. That’s what ties Berkeley to Ferguson, not the narrow facts of the situation.”