Years after Ferguson, bonding out mass arrests still same hot mess

After the acquittal of the officer who killed Anthony Lamar Smith, police made mass arrests of over 100 protesters in downtown St. Louis after kettling hundreds on September 17, 2017. St. Louis transported folks from this mass arrest, which the ACLU is challenging as unconstitutional, to the St. Louis City Justice Center for “processing”. During the street sweep, police arrested a St. Louis Dispatch reporter and a tour member from U2 en route to Mexico City the next day. The City of St. Louis is already notorious for its unfair treatment of detainees. They also single out protesters for an added pound of justice.

St. Louis mass protest call to action

no equal justice in mass arrests

Legal Volunteers immediately began trying to bail activists from jail. They worked through the night and next few days to secure the release of every individual arrested on protest charges. During my volunteer shift at the Justice Center, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) provided inconsistent and untruthful information to those posting protester bond. Specifically, SLMPD and DOC gave volunteers false information about the process. They advised only one person could enter the Justice Center at a time to post bond. Officials said the individual had to be a licensed attorney with proof of credentials. Police reported delays were caused by shift changes during shifts. Though attorneys volunteered their time, these falsehoods increased the burden and expense to protesters.

Mass arrest protesters released, unless optics unfavorable

At one point, the DOC Commissioner and Superintendent spoke to me and another attorney offering an air-conditioned spot out of the elements to expedite protester releases. When it poured down rain, these men rescinded their offer and shut down the bonding process and detainee releases for the night. Although “Bond may be posted 24 hours/day” according to the City of St. Louis’ website, the DOC suspended posting bond for protesters around 9:00 p.m. Authorities made this decision after a sizable crowd amassed outside the Justice Center to support the previous night’s activists’ release.

Protesters hold cell phone lights at downtown St. Louis Justice Center rally Monday.

In fact, any person over age 18, including the arrestee, can post bond. Certainly more than one individual can enter the Justice Center at a time. Dozens of seats for the public in a general waiting area and another seated waiting area prove it. In addition, SLMPD shift changes only occurred at 7:00 after St. Louis declared 12 hour shifts prior to the Stockley acquittal.

St. Louis City designed its bonding system for delay, confusion, and misinformation

Arrestees and their loved ones suffer undue and needless hardship as a result. The bond booth is designed and staffed by one officer and accepts only exact change. It is The Sloths staffing the DMV in Disney’s Zootopia. Authorities charged the majority with Failure to Disperse and held them on a $50 bond. You cannot obtain fifty exact dollars from an ATM in the denominations required, nor in the middle of the night. Do you know how much cash sucks? It requires a multi-step process that Venmo has cornered the market on.disney sloths at dmv

The public speaks to the bond officer through a window. You exchange cash and documentation through an awkward exchange hole designed for prisoners, or inchworms. Often, you must repeat discussions because the bullet proof glass impedes communication. Those posting bond often wait hours inside the tiny bond booth for officers out of sight to sign off on duplicate paperwork. The person posting bond can only take pen, paper and identification inside the Justice Center. Additionally, you are not allowed to take a cell phone or any personal belongings inside, although an officer let me “sneak” a pack of gum with me. Legal coordination of effort must be made personally and requires the one bonding detainees to exit the building and re-enter. One must go through two sets of security to enter, risking a lost place in line at the bonding booth.

Mass arrests will continue

If legal volunteers had this much trouble navigating the City’s chaotic, byzantine bail system, distraught friends and family unfamiliar with the process endure even more obstacles. The system ups the already stressful task to find out where their loved one is or if/when they will be released. This either intentionally onerous &/or negligently oppressive process adds another layer of injustice. The systemic bureaucracy delays, obfuscates, and burdens detainees and their families.

Other cities have eliminated cash bonds for civil disobedience and release folks on a summons. At the very least, the City should accept alternate forms of payment. They should create and follow a transparent system. The bonding booth should be properly staffed. DOC and SLMPD must communicate effectively and competently to each other and to the public. The system must eliminate redundancies, and develop a simplified procedure for mass arrests which appear high likely in the foreseeable future.

We have an opportunity to stand out as a City who embraces social justice reform in addition to being known for failing to hold police who kill accountable.

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