St. Louis police deny targeting media with no-fly zone during Ferguson protests
Protesters march with their hands raised at a rally in St. Louis, Missouri, in this file photo taken on Oct. 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

St. Louis County police defended on Monday a no-fly zone imposed over the suburb of Ferguson during August street protests, saying it was for safety reasons, after an Associated Press report said the prohibition was to keep news helicopters away.

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.

"It's always all about safety. That's the bottom line on this," St. Louis County Chief of Police Jon Belmar told reporters at a news conference about the no-fly zone.

He said the decision was made after pilots reported seeing muzzle flashes and potentially hazardous lasers pointed at them.

The Federal Aviation Administration imposed flight restrictions in 37 square miles of airspace for 12 days. Air traffic managers struggled to redefine the ban to let commercial flights operate at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and allow police helicopters but ban other traffic in the area, 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 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."

Belmar denied that police had discussed banning media flights. "We didn't have this type of discussion in the unified command. This never came up," he said.

He said the FAA decided what flights and altitudes would be allowed.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who called for "wholesale" change at the Ferguson Police Department last week, said 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 to block 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.

The FAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the AP report on Monday.

(Reporting by Kenny Bahr; Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Carey Gillam, Susan Heavey and Jim Loney)