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.
“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.