NEW YORK -- Trey Yingst, a journalist arrested during November protests in Ferguson, Missouri, has settled a civil rights lawsuit filed against St. Louis County and the commanding officer involved in the incident.
Yingst, who filed the suit in December with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, will receive $8,500, and all three charges against him -- unlawful assembly, failure to obey a lawful order and interfering with the duties of a police officer -- have been dropped.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Yingst, a reporter with online site News2Share, said he is also requesting his arrest record be expunged. He said the county agreed to sign his petition with the court as part of the settlement, which states there was “no probable cause at the time of the action.”
The ACLU announced Monday that along with Yingst, Bilgin Şaşmaz, a journalist arrested during a separate protest, will also not be charged and will similarly petition to have his records expunged.
“Bilgin and Trey are relieved to put these incidents behind them and to no longer have the possibility of criminal charges hanging over their heads," Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. "We are gratified that St. Louis County acknowledges that they should never have been arrested."
Though Yingst isn’t getting an apology from the county or from the arresting officer, Lt. James Vollmer, for being arrested, he said the fact that they're paying him to drop the suit “shows they made a mistake.” The police have said Yingst was arrested while refusing police orders and standing in the street, a claim contradicted by journalists, eyewitnesses and video of the incident.
Yingst is one of roughly two dozen journalists arrested or detained while covering demonstrations sparked by the Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson. Most of the arrests occurred during the initial late summer unrest in Ferguson, in which police clamped down aggressively on the press. In an Oct. 26 report, PEN American Center cited 52 alleged violations of press freedom during the protests.
But demonstrations continued in November in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Wilson (it did not do so). On Nov. 21, a federal judge issued orders that appeared to better safeguard journalists from police harassment while reporting on the ground. Yingst was arrested two days later.
The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly -- himself arrested in a Ferguson McDonald's in August, and possibly still facing a trespassing charge -- reported at the time that police arrested Yingst as he was standing on a sidewalk and wearing media credentials.
A Reason magazine reporter, along with other witnesses, also supported Yingst’s account. And video of the incident, posted that night on Twitter, shows police in skirmish formation approaching Yingst on the sidewalk.
The St. Louis County Police Department, however, tweeted after the incident that Yingst was detained for “failure to disperse” and had “refused” orders from commanding officers to leave the street. A police report echoes the description of events in that tweet.
In the police department’s account, Yingst was standing in the street with protesters and impeding the flow of traffic when ordered to move to the sidewalk. It was then that Vollmer ordered Yingst -- three times, by his account -- to return to the sidewalk. But Yingst refused to do so, according to the report, and only “slowly walked backwards onto the sidewalk” as the police formation approached.
“The whole police report was basically made up,” Yingst said.
In the interview, Yingst suggested police created the account to support the original narrative they had tweeted out. He disputed the police department’s claim of where he was located at the time of the arrest, that he was impeding traffic and that he ignored multiple orders to move.
Yingst said he was shocked by the police report, which to him raised the troubling question of how others arrested in Ferguson may have been treated.
"If that’s happening to me, and people are falsifying a police report about a white journalist," he said, "what are they doing to a black member of the community?"
Yingst said his goal in pursuing the suit wasn't to take money out of the community. So after paying for lawyers and travel expenses, Yingst said, he plans to put what’s left of the $8,500 into a scholarship fund for Ferguson-area high school students who plan to study journalism in college.