With the St. Louis region on edge before a grand jury decides Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson’s fate, the leaders of St. Louis and St. Louis County are preparing for protests.
Appearing before dozens of reporters in Clayton, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said that there have been talks between police officials and protests groups.
Slay said police agreed with 11 of the 19 so-called “rules of engagement” offered up this month by the group, Hands Up United. These includes:
- Making efforts to provide alternate routes of passage for people uninvolved in protests.
- Providing “latitude” for free speech and expression.
- Having “clear standards” of professionalism among law enforcement.
- Communicating with protesters to reach "common sense agreements."
But Slay said police officials didn’t agree with all of the protesters demands. Among the points of contention:
- Being “tolerant” of “minor law-breaking,” such as throwing bottles at officers.
- Agreeing to “safe houses” for protesters. In a written response, police officials said they believe “subterfuge should be used to enter, however, life safety and exigent circumstances are valid reasons.”
- Giving protesters 48 hours of the grand jury’s decision. They wrote such a request was not in the “purview” of police officials.
- Allowing media and legal observers to "do their jobs freely." They wrote "everyone should be treated as general public."
While Slay said that the two sides didn’t agree on everything, the fact that police and protesters are talking before the grand jury decision means something.
“Police will not be aggressive,” Slay said. “But if some protesters turn violent or [become threatening], police will respond to keep everyone safe – including bystanders, the peaceful protesters and the police officers themselves. When demonstrators are being civilly disobedient, they will, in most cases, be given a chance to adhere to the law before they are arrested. And then, if necessary, they will be arrested in a non-violent manner.”
Dooley added, “People have free speech regardless of how you feel.”
“There will be differences of opinions on both sides,” Dooley said. “I will hope and pray that we’ll respect each other’s opinions. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with you. But it’s necessary that I have respect for your opinion. If that’s how you feel, that is how you feel.”
Missouri Public Safety Director Dan Isom joined Dooley and Slay at the press conference. The former St. Louis Police chief said law enforcement from St. Louis, St. Louis County and the Missouri Highway Patrol “are prepared and dedicated to professionalism and to peace.”
“The Unified Command has set up direct lines of communication to ensure that law enforcement and citizens are dialoguing now and after the decision is made,” Isom said.
Should citizens be afraid?
The press conference came amid a tense situation throughout the St. Louis region. Some businesses in Ferguson and Clayton, for instance, have started boarding up their windows in anticipation for widespread unrest. And schools and businesses across the region have sent out missives about preparing for the worst.
The press conference also occurred as dozens of media outlets descended on the St. Louis area, which ensured that the wait for the grand jury decision had a prominent place within the national news cycle.
When asked whether St. Louisans had any reason to be worried about what happens after the grand jury decision, Slay responded: “It would be imprudent for us not to be prepared for some widespread unrest as a result of whatever the decision may be.”
“That’s why we’re taking these precautions,” Slay said. “We need to be prepared for whatever happens and we will be. We have no information that would cause us to advise any of our citizens that they should be in fear of their life or their property. We have no information that would cause us to tell people to do anything than what they would normally do – go to work, go to school, those kinds of things.”
“But again, we want to make sure we are prepared,” he added.
Dooley reminded reporters that after days of protests in August, people for the most part “were safe in their homes.”
“Nobody was seriously hurt,” Dooley said. “No police officers were seriously hurt. And nobody lost their life. We expect the same outcome – even better.”
Dooley and Slay also spoke after two nights of protests in front of the Ferguson Police Department that resulted in arrests. It featured police in riot gear, which was somewhat reminiscent of the tactics used throughout August.
When asked if police were overly aggressive with protesters over the past two days, Dooley said “not necessarily so.”
“We have to respect each person’s opinion on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it," Dooley said. "Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with me. But we believe that we’re going to do what’s right for this community to keep everybody safe – even the protesters.”