The St. Louis chief of police, Jon Belmar, denied claims that restricting media access to the protests going on in the streets below was the reason his department requested a no-fly zone over Ferguson, Mo. Belmar explained that the no-fly zone was put into place because police feared gunfire, and not to prevent the media from getting an overhead view of the protests below. During a press conference held on Monday evening, Belmar said that there is no reason to limit anyone’s access to the “air space other than safety.”
The no-fly order was in place in August for close to two weeks, and occurred when the protests over the police shooting death of Michael Brown were at their peak. The unarmed teenager was shot and killed on August 9 by a Ferguson police officer, resulting in weeks-long protests against perceived police racism by the residents of Ferguson, which were met with aggression by police officers charged with controlling the crowds.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that a recording of Federal Aviation Administration members working with the police in St. Louis County to define a 37-square-mile no-fly zone in an attempt “to keep the media out.” Only commercial airliners and police aircraft were allowed to enter the airspace. Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the report on Sunday, saying that transparency in police actions is “always a good thing,” and that it was important for Americans to know what had transpired in Ferguson as well as what the current state of affairs in Ferguson is. Holder added that preventing the media from being able to report on the events “is something that needs to be avoided.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that the FAA implemented the no-fly zone immediately after reports of gunfire directed at a police helicopter. He said that the restriction was only in place for 12 to 14 hours before the airspace restriction was reduced from 5,000 feet to 3,000 feet, which would allow reporters to once again enter the airspace. The Associated Press reports that the easing of the no-fly zone restrictions were not reported to television stations in St. Louis as is the usual practice, and the media remained under the impression that the original altitude restriction remained in place.
Belmar maintains that the only impetus behind the no-fly order was the safety of the pilots, referring to police reports made during the protests of helicopters being shot at or having lasers directed at them. Because of that, Belmar said that the department was lucky that nobody was killed. He said that some media was allowed to fly at a higher, safer altitude, as determined by police, over the no-fly zone. A subsequent inspection of the helicopter said to have been shot at revealed no sign of damage by gunfire.
The speculation regarding what motivated police to create the no-fly zone over Ferguson comes at a time when the city is tensely waiting for the grand jury to come to a decision as to whether or not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Brown. Fears that the grand jury will rule against pressing charges against Wilson and the possible Rodney King-like riots that may occur in Ferguson are very real. Any sign of misconduct by the police will only add fuel to what may be a very large fire.
By Jennifer Pfalz