St Louis protests turn violent for third night over acquittal of white officer in police killing

Police order crowds to disperse after dozens arrested at weekend during protests over acquittal of Jason Stockley.

A largely peaceful rally in St Louis turned rowdy on Sunday as a handful of demonstrators protesting at the acquittal of a white police officer over the fatal shooting of a black man in 2011 threw bottles in response to police making arrests.

Hundreds of people gathered for the third night in a row in the Missouri city of almost 320,000 people. Violence erupted the previous two nights, evoking memories of the riots following the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

More than 80 people were arrested as police in riot gear used pepper spray and arrested the demonstrators who had defied orders to disperse following a larger, peaceful protest.

At a late-night news conference, Mayor Lyda Krewson noted that “the vast majority of protesters are non-violent,” and blamed the trouble on “a group of agitators.”

Sunday’s event began peacefully, just like the previous two nights. Then a police officer was making two arrests a block away from police headquarters, leading some to rush toward the officer, who then jumped in his car and reversed quickly through the crowd to get away, according to two Reuters journalists.

Nobody was injured, but the crowd started confronting a police line, and some people threw bottles.

The St Louis police department said it had received reports of “significant property damage” on Sunday night and had ordered crowds to disperse in the area of Tucker and Pine.

Jason Stockley, the officer who shot dead Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, has told a city newspaper he was “just not the guy” to blame.

During demonstrations on Friday night, police said 32 people were arrested and 10 officers injured. Late on Saturday in the Delmar Loop area of University City, a suburb about 10 miles west of downtown St Louis known for concert venues and night life, a group of demonstrators refused to disperse, broke windows and threw objects at police. Officers moved in with riot gear and armoured vehicles and the disturbances resulted in several arrests.

In a Facebook post early on Sunday, Missouri governor Eric Greitens wrote: “Saturday night, some criminals decided to pick up rocks and break windows. They thought they’d get away with it. They were wrong. Our officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.

“In the past, our leaders let people break windows, loot, start fires. They let them do it. Not this time. Tonight, the police arrested the vandals. At this moment, they’re all sitting in a jail cell. They’re gonna wake up and face felony charges.”

The St Louis Post-Dispatch published an exclusive interview with Stockley on Friday. “I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” he said.

St Louis circuit judge Timothy Wilson ruled that the state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense” when he shot Smith, 24. Stockley shot Smith after the suspected drug dealer fled from officers trying to arrest him. Stockley, 36, testified he felt he was in danger because he saw Smith holding a silver revolver when he backed his car toward officers then sped away.

Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car. The officer’s DNA was on the weapon but Smith’s was not. Dashcam video from Stockley’s cruiser recorded him saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker”. Less than a minute later, he shot Smith five times.

“It feels like a burden has been lifted but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” Stockley told the Post-Dispatch. “The taking of someone’s life is the most significant thing one can do, and it’s not done lightly … My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters. I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this.”

The interview is the first time Stockley has publicly addressed the case. “I did not murder Anthony Lamar Smith,” he said. “I did not plant a gun.”

Stockley said he understood why video of the shooting looked bad. “Every resisting [arrest] looks bad, it never looks good,” he said. “So what you have to separate are the optics from the facts, and if a person is unwilling to do that, then they’ve already made up their mind and the facts just don’t matter. To those people, there’s nothing that I can do to change their minds.”

Judge Wilson found that the 15 seconds Stockley took to get out of his car, unholster his weapon and fire at Smith proved the incident was not an execution.

Stockley, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran, defended his use of an AK-47 with 100 rounds that he used to shoot Smith as justified, given the level of firepower he saw on the city’s streets.

“I used it as a deterrent and I believed it was better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” he told the paper. “I accept full responsibility for violating the rules. But it’s not a moral crime. It’s a rule violation.”

Stockley resigned in 2013 after a suspension for carrying the AK-47. Later he took a job with an oil company in Texas. It was not until May 2016 that he was charged with first-degree murder. He said that decision was “an emotional decision for personal and political reasons, not a legal one”.

Prosecutors alleged Stockley told his partner he was going to kill Smith while they were pursuing him. At trial, Stockley said he did not remember making the comment. Judge Wilson said the comment lacked context.

Stockley said his memory of events was imperfect and that the first time he heard himself saying what he said in the car was when he met the FBI. He said he could only speculate why he had said it, “whether it was in the heat of the moment or whether it was part of a larger conversation”.

In his interview, Stockley said: “I can tell you with absolute certainty that there was no plan to murder Anthony Smith during a high-speed vehicle pursuit.”

The judge said there was no evidence proving the gun in Smith’s car had been planted, and it had been reasonable to believe Smith was reaching for a gun when he was shot.

Stockley’s lawyer, Neil Bruntrager, told the Washington Post: “This wasn’t a routine traffic stop. This was a drug-related stop. Those by their very nature – they’re deadly.

“It’s important to look at the video, but that’s not all of the evidence … I would encourage people to read Judge [Timothy] Wilson’s opinion because here’s a detailed examination of the facts of the case, and it leaves no stone unturned.”

Bruntrager also represented Darren Wilson, the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson near St Louis in 2014. A grand jury’s decision not to bring charges in that case prompted serious rioting.