The U.S. government allowed police in Ferguson, Missouri, to restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace for nearly two weeks in August for safety reasons, but audio recordings show that local authorities instead wanted to keep news helicopters away during violent street protests.
On Aug. 12, amid demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Federal Aviation Administration managers struggled to redefine an earlier flight ban so police helicopters and commercial flights at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport could fly through the area — but not others.
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"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police Department in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. "But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on."
At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."
The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis County police, which said the restrictions had nothing to do with limiting the press and instead were imposed because of gunshots fired at a police helicopter.
But county police officials told the AP recently there was no damage to their helicopter, and they were unable to provide a report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described reports of the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed "rumors."
The AP obtained the recordings under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. They raise serious questions about whether police were trying to suppress aerial images of the demonstrations and the police response by violating the constitutional rights of journalists with tacit assistance by federal officials.
Such images would have offered an unvarnished view of one of the most serious episodes of civil violence in recent memory. The recordings also offer a rare look into government operations, especially as local public-records requests to Ferguson officials by the AP and other news organizations were denied or met with high processing fees.
"Any evidence that a no-fly zone was put in place as a pretext to exclude the media from covering events in Ferguson is extraordinarily troubling and a blatant violation of the press's First Amendment rights," said Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney specializing in First Amendment issues.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement Sunday his agency will always err on the side of safety. "FAA cannot and will never exclusively ban media from covering an event of national significance, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case."
Huerta also said that, to the best of the FAA's knowledge, "no media outlets objected to any of the restrictions" during the time they were in effect.
An FAA manager, in the recordings, lamented that procedures for defining a no-fly area didn't have an option that would accommodate only excluding news helicopters. "There is really ... no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK,'" he said, later working out wording they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.
The less restrictive change by the FAA practically served the authorities' intended goal, an official said: "A lot of the time the (lesser restriction) just keeps the press out, anyways. They don't understand the difference."
The Kansas City FAA manager then asked a St. Louis County police official if the restrictions could be lessened so nearby commercial flights wouldn't be affected. The new order allows "aircraft on final (approach) there at St. Louis. It will still keep news people out. ... The only way people will get in there is if they give them permission in there anyway so they, with the (lesser restriction), it still keeps all of them out."
"Yeah," replied the police official. "I have no problem with that whatsoever."
KMOV-TV News Director Brian Thouvenot told the AP his station was prepared at first to legally challenge the flight restrictions, but was later advised that its pilot could fly over the area as long as the helicopter stayed above 3,000 feet. That kept the helicopter and its mounted camera outside the restricted zone, although filming from such a distance, he said, was "less than ideal."
None of the St. Louis stations was advised that media helicopters could enter the airspace even under the lesser restrictions, which under federal rules should not have applied to aircraft "carrying properly accredited news representatives." The FAA's no-fly notice indicated the area was closed to all aircraft except police and planes coming to and from the airport.
"Only relief aircraft operations under direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in the airspace," it said. "Aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport are exempt."
The same day that notice was issued, a county police spokesman publicly denied the no-fly zone was to prevent news helicopters from covering the events. "We understand that that's the perception that's out there, but it truly is for the safety of pilots," Sgt. Brian Schellman told NBC News.
Ferguson police were widely criticized for their response following the death of Brown, who was shot by a city police officer, Darren Wilson, on Aug. 9. Later, under county police command, several reporters were arrested, a TV news crew was tear-gassed and some demonstrators were told they weren't allowed to film officers. In early October, a federal judge said the police violated demonstrators' and journalists' rights by forcing them to stay in constant motion.
"Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying and arresting reporters who are just doing their jobs," President Barack Obama said Aug. 14, two days after police confided to federal officials the flight ban was secretly intended to keep media helicopters out of the area. "The local authorities, including police, have a responsibility to be transparent and open."
The restricted flight zone initially encompassed airspace in a 3.4-mile radius around Ferguson and up to 5,000 feet in altitude, but police agreed to reduce it to 3,000 feet after the FAA's command center in Warrenton, Virginia, complained to managers in Kansas City that it was impeding traffic into St. Louis.
The flight restrictions remained in place until Aug. 22, FAA records show. A police captain wanted it extended when officials were set to identify Wilson by name as the officer who shot Brown and because Brown's funeral would "bring out the emotions," the recordings show.
"We just don't know what to expect," he told the FAA. "We're monitoring that. So, last night we shot a lot of tear gas, we had a lot of shots fired into the air again. It did quiet down after midnight, but with that ... we don't know when that's going to erupt."
One FAA official at the agency's command center asked the Kansas City manager in charge whether the restrictions were really about safety. "So are (the police) protecting aircraft from small-arms fire or something?" he asked. "Or do they think they're just going to keep the press out of there, which they can't do."
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