ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis police board has apologized and agreed to pay damages to four people targeted before protests at the World Agricultural Forum in 2003.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri on Monday announced the settlement of a lawsuit it brought on behalf of the activists; the ACLU said they had planned only peaceful protests in the days around the agricultural event.
About $54,000 will be divided among the four activists who remained with the case over the years, and $210,000 in attorney fees and court costs will be paid by the state, the ACLU said. The St. Louis police board is charged by the state with overseeing the city's police department.
The ACLU says police acted under a plan to root out people whom police described at the time as "anarchists."
The protesters planned to take part in "Biodevastation 7," a counter-event to the World Agricultural Forum to voice concerns on world food issues. Police braced for trouble before the conference after violent protests in other cities at agriculture-related events, but the protests in St. Louis were subdued and riots never developed there.
"They came up with reasons to arrest people. They were trying to keep them from protesting," said Anthony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
"These were peaceful people who never intended to do anything wrong," he said.
The group accused police of making warrantless entries, subjecting a woman to an "unlawful and humiliating" strip search and arresting people for riding bicycles without a license, a charge later changed to "obstructing traffic flow" because it wasn't illegal to ride a bike without a license.
The bicycle charges weren't prosecuted, but those unlawfully arrested were not able to attend the protest, the ACLU said.
The activists accused police of property damage, like cutting tents, clothing and bike tires, and urinating on protesters' belongings, the ACLU said.
In one instance, police entered a building based on inspection paperwork that indicated serious housing violations. The ACLU said the officer who signed the inspection document later admitted it was false.
In an apology letter, the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners acknowledged the "infringement of civil liberties of the citizenry was not warranted."
St. Louis Police Chief Daniel Isom, who has been chief for less than a year, said Monday that the apology was the right thing to do.
"Some of the tactics used were inappropriate, go against the values and ethics of our police department," he said. He said no policy changes were instituted as a result of the incidents, because existing policies were sound, but said they needed to be followed properly.
The lawsuit, filed in 2005 in federal court in eastern Missouri, was scheduled for a jury trial this fall but a voluntary settlement was reached through a court-appointed mediator, Rothert said.
He said the police department talked about starting a new chapter. "We hope that's true," Rothert said. "Their tone is a new tone."