The St. Louis County Police Department has taken over command of security of protest demonstrations in Ferguson. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson asked St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar to take over Friday after consulting with Ferguson’s mayor and city manager.
Belmar said that the Ferguson police department lacked the manpower to handle the level of activity in Ferguson.
“If I had 54 people that I was responsible for and the scope of this, I’m not sure that I could do it,” Belmar said, adding that Ferguson police will continue to respond to calls and take care of the day-to-day policing of the city.
However, the arrest of twelve protesters Thursday night did give him a “sense of urgency,” Belmar said.
The change in command comes a day after some local officials and rights groups questioned whether police went too far in arresting about a dozen people during Thursday night’s protests.
In a tweet, Ferguson police said protesters were arrested for noise violations, resisting arrest, failure to comply and “language to incite violence.”
Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes was at the protest site on Thursday evening, and said the police’s main issue seemed to be in whether the protesters were staying on the sidewalks and not blocking the entrance to the police station. Protesters also had marched through a Walgreens and a local grocery store earlier in the evening.
Bynes said protesters were chanting similar statements as in previous nights and police did warn them against using violence-inciting language, but she said she doesn’t know what they said that might have applied.
“Is it just something that they don’t like that could warrant a violent reaction? It is very creative, and they’re trying to find almost any way to try to arrest people,” Bynes said.
Saint Louis University law professor Alan Howard said inciting language only applies when the violence being talked about actually happens; the language must do more than simply advocate for violence. For those reasons, and because the inciting language must also be recorded, it is an extremely difficult citation for the government to prove.
“They would have to show that the actual speech, like I said, was incitement-like, which is different than showing that someone might be advocating violence. That is short of inciting,” he said. Howard also said that non-inciting language, even if it is critical of police, is clearly protected under the First Amendment.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it is investigating the arrests.
Belmar says the he plans on posting a county commander in Ferguson each night with the authority to use their best judgment on whether or not it is necessary to enforce ordinances such as peace disturbance and noise violations.
“Just because we have the ability perhaps through certain ordinances or statutes to enforce certain laws, it doesn’t always mean that we should or that we can,” Belmar said, noting that when the protests take place in public spaces those ordinances can have an effect on First Amendment rights.
Belmar said St. Louis County Police would maintain command as long as necessary.