FERGUSON, Mo. -- Police officers arrested a journalist during peaceful protests in Ferguson on Saturday night, amid widespread speculation that tensions could boil over in advance of a grand jury's ruling about the police officer who shot Michael Brown in August.
That arrest marred what was otherwise a professional and noncontroversial police response to demonstrations under the temporary leadership of Lt. Jerry Lohr of the St. Louis County Police Department. The department is sending officers to manage the police response to the protests on a rotational basis, and Lohr was on duty Saturday night. Lohr has been commended for regularly engaging in conversations with protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department and for de-escalating situations that would likely have resulted in an aggressive police response on other nights.
Despite Lohr's conciliatory attitude, his colleague Lt. James Vollmer, the commanding officer who ordered the journalist's arrest, took a more aggressive approach.
Demonstrators assembled once again outside the Ferguson Police Department on Saturday night as they waited to hear whether a grand jury will indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9. Earlier in the evening, demonstrators had gathered at the location of the teenager's death, where Brown's mother urged calm.
The arrest of the D.C.-based journalist, Trey Yingst of News2Share, took place down the street from the police station, where Lohr and Vollmer were stationed for most of the night. At the time, a few demonstrators were temporarily blocking the flow of traffic on the street. A number of officers emerged from behind a building, first ordering everyone out of the street, and then saying that people gathered on a sidewalk had to cross the street and assemble on the opposite sidewalk.
Yingst was standing on the initial sidewalk, wearing media credentials and a camera around his neck. Within seconds of encountering him, the commanding officer ordered that the journalist be taken into custody.
The St. Louis County Police Department stated in a tweet posted Saturday night that Yingst, 21, had been standing in the road and was arrested for "failure to disperse." However, as this reporter and a multitude of other witnesses saw firsthand -- and as was captured on video -- Yingst was not in the street. A subsequent statement by the department on Sunday morning claimed that Yingst had been standing not in the street but, rather, in "the area," this time saying that he would be charged with unlawful assembly.
Later, a spokesman said the department "is looking into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Yingst's arrest."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Yingst said he was shocked that he was taken into custody. Before he was locked up, he pointed out, he had actually been composing a tweet about the "fantastic restraint" that Lohr was showing in the handling of the demonstrations.
"Once they took me behind the fire station, I asked what was I doing wrong, as I was standing on the sidewalk," Yingst told HuffPost shortly after he was released from jail early Sunday morning. "The guy said, 'Look, I don't always agree with it, but I was following orders.'"
Another reporter, who was covering the demonstrations for Reason magazine, suggested to Lohr in a joint interview conducted by Reason and HuffPost that the officer who had Yingst taken into custody "was being a jackass, and you're being extremely polite." Lohr responded "I know." When asked whether it should be him dealing with the protesters instead of the other lieutenant, Lohr smiled and changed the subject.
"I mean, ultimately the deal is, is, my approach may be different than his, but we're trying to accomplish the same goal," Lohr said.
Vollmer was wearing a name plate, but the St. Louis County Police Department later provided the officer's full name in response to a request from HuffPost.
Yingst's arrest came after a federal judge ordered several area law enforcement agencies to stop cracking down on journalists. The court order theoretically bars police from "interfering with individuals who are photographing or recording at public places but who are not threatening the safety of others or physically interfering with the ability of law enforcement to perform their duties."
The American Civil Liberties Union is looking into Yingst's arrest, and said it was "unclear what legal authority police officers would have had to order him to disperse."
“We are deeply troubled that the First Amendment rights of the media are still being violated in spite of the recent court order we secured against such action by the County of St. Louis,” Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU's Missouri chapter, said in a statement Sunday. “We will continue to monitor the situation and if necessary swiftly pursue aggressive action to ensure that unlawful interference with the press comes to an end.”
The police made one other arrest in Ferguson on Saturday, though the circumstances were significantly different. David Rodriguez, a 26-year-old from Illinois, was taken into custody as he stood in front of cars in the middle of the street while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. (The mask is known as a trademark symbol for the activist group Anonymous.) After Rodriguez refused to comply with orders to leave the street, Lohr lead a group of officers wearing normal uniforms into the street and took the protester into custody without using force.
"It's fine, it's fine," Lohr said, calming the crowd as Rodriguez was taken away.
This story has been updated to include the identity of Lt. James Vollmer.
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