Local authorities requested a no-fly zone over the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson during street protests to keep news helicopters away, according to an Associated Press report, which cited audio recordings of federal aviation workers.
Police have been criticized for using rubber bullets, tear gas and dogs, and for pointing weapons at protesters during demonstrations that followed the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed flight restrictions in 37 square miles of airspace surrounding the town for 12 days. Air traffic managers struggled to redefine the ban to let commercial flights operate at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and to let police helicopters fly through the area but ban other traffic, the AP reported on Sunday.
“They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out,” said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by the AP through a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request.
The conversations contradict statements from the St. Louis County Police Department that the restriction was solely for safety, the AP reported.
St. Louis County Police spokesman Brian Schellman said in an email to Reuters on Monday that the request for restricted airspace was made “due to the hostile nature of certain persons on the ground” who fired gunshots at a police helicopter.
“The pilots made the decision to request that all aircraft, not just media aircraft, be restricted for the safety of those using that airspace,” Schellman said.
The AP reported that 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.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who called for “wholesale” change at the Ferguson Police Department last week, said at a press conference on Monday that he was not aware whether the Justice Department was involved in the request for a no-fly zone and condemned the use of such practices for the purposes of blocking media access.
“Anything that would officially inhibit the ability of news gatherers to do what they do, I think, needs to be avoided,” Holder told reporters at a press conference on an unrelated topic on Monday.
A spokesperson for the FAA was not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago and Julia Edwards in Washington; Editing by Carey Gillam, Susan Heavey and Jim Loney)