Police in St. Louis arrested over a dozen people amid protests Friday after a white former police officer was found not guilty of murder in the 2011 death of a black man who was shot five times in his car after a high-speed chase.
Demonstrators took to the streets shortly after the officer, Jason Stockley, was acquitted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action charges by St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who presided over the racially charged case.
Stockley escaped what could have been a lengthy prison sentence despite the fact that he was recorded on an internal video camera during the pursuit apparently saying he intended to kill Anthony Lamar Smith.
Some sections of downtown were closed off and there was sporadic violence as protesters pelted police officers with water bottles and rocks and ignored repeated orders to disperse, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police reported.gi
The police, some dressed in riot gear and wielding batons, others on bicycles, responded with pepper spray, the local NBC affiliate KSDK reported. One person was arrested after damaging a police car windshield, the police chief said.
Interim St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O'Toole said at a press conference Friday evening that four officers were injured, but only one required medical attention for an injury to the hand. Police said 13 people had been arrested.
"For the most part demonstrations have been peaceful," Chief O'Toole said. "There have been some tense moments where agitators became destructive and assaulted police officers."
Later in the night, hundreds marched in the upscale Central West End section, chanting and carrying signs. A group tried to march onto Interstate 64 but were thwarted by police who blocked their path, the Associated Press reported. St. Louis police said on Twitter Friday night that "agitators" converged on Mayor Lyda Krewson's house "throwing rocks and breaking windows."
Agitators refuse to disperse causing property damage near Mayor's home. Those who don't comply w/police orders subject to arrest #stlverdict— St. Louis, MO Police (@SLMPD) September 16, 2017
Wells Fargo, Stifel, Nestle and some of St. Louis' other big employers sent thousands of workers home early as a precaution. Krewson earlier urged St. Louis residents to "show each other compassion."
"My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Adam Lamar Smith, our police, judge, prosecutor, our citizens who find no comfort or justice, and everyone involved in this difficult case," Krewson said in a statement. "I am appalled by what happened to Anthony Lamar Smith. I am sobered by this outcome."
The Stockley case rekindled racial tensions not seen in the St. Louis-area since 2014 when a violent uprising erupted in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Activists backed by many of St. Louis' black clergy had vowed to stage protests if Wilson acquitted Stockley.
City officials, fearing trouble, scheduled officers to work 12-hour shifts and prepared for the worst. Police Chief Lawrence O'Toole called for calm.
"While we know emotions are running high, our number one priority is protecting and serving our citizens," he said in a statement. "We ask that citizens who choose to demonstrate, do so peacefully."
Smith was 24, a new dad and engaged to be married when he was killed. But in his ruling, the judge called him an "urban heroin dealer" while noting that Stockley was a West Point graduate who had served in Iraq and suffered a back injury during a Baghdad hotel bombing.
In their initial report, police said Smith was doing a drug deal behind a fried chicken restaurant north of downtown St. Louis when he took off in a silver Buick, twice crashing into a police vehicle.
Officers on buses attempting to leave but being blocked by demonstrators at Tucker & Spruce. Rocks are being thrown at the buses #stlverdict— St. Louis, MO Police (@SLMPD) September 15, 2017
In Wilson's ruling and in documents obtained by NBC affiliate KSDK, Stockley could be heard saying "we're killing this (expletive), don't you know."
But the judge said this was not proof Stockley wanted to kill Smith, calling the remark "ambiguous."
"People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations," he wrote.
Wilson also wrote that Stockley "did not approach the Buick and immediately shoot Smith multiple times."
Instead, the judge said Stockley "ordered Smith to open the door and to show his hands."
"The defense does not deny that Stockley shot and killed Smith," the judge wrote. "Rather, the defense contends Stockley acted in self-defense."
In May 2016, when Stockley was charged with first-degree murder, prosecutors said that a gun found in Smith's car had only Stockley's DNA on it.
Wilson also said there was no evidence to suggest Stockley "planted the handgun found in the Buick." He said the state's own witnesses "testified that the absence of a person's DNA on a gun does not mean that person did not touch the gun."
"Finally, the Court observes, based on its nearly 30 years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly," Wilson wrote.
The prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, said she was "disappointed with the court's decision."
"In light of the verdict, it's time to take a harder look at how officer-involved shootings are addressed in our city," she said.
Gardner said she understands and appreciates "the many challenges that face our city's police officers."
"It's very noble work," she said. "However, we need further examination and clarity in the laws that govern the use of deadly force by police officers."
After the Smith killing, homicide detectives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department deemed it justifiable. But Stockley resigned from the force in 2013, the same year that the Board of Police Commissioners settled a wrongful death suit with Smith's family for $900,000.
When Stockley was charged with premeditated murder, he opted for a bench trial rather than take his chances with a jury.