I first reached out to Drew and Jennifer Burbridge a little more than a year ago because I wanted to see how the pair found themselves in police custody while filming a protest of a judge’s decision to acquit a white police officer in the shooting death of a black suspect.
The documentary filmmakers from Kansas City were arrested for failure to disperse the night police allegedly beat another officer who was undercover during a protest in St. Louis. Charges against the couple were later dropped.
The details are horrific. Drew claims his arms were restrained with zip ties when officers kicked and struck him with batons. Handcuffed, all Jennifer could do was helplessly look on in horror. The beating left Drew unconscious. He only came to when an officer lifted his head — by the hair — and doused him in the face with pepper spray.
The incident occurred the same night officers used a controversial police technique known as “kettling” to form human barriers that gradually closed in on protesters. The crackdown was extreme, with at least 150 officers in riot gear surrounding protesters and passersby. A federal judge ruled the technique unconstitutional.
“They absolutely exceeded their authority,” Drew recently told me.
Jennifer was not physically hurt, but she was left mentally and emotionally scarred. The mental anguish continues today. The sweep left the couple questioning the role of police in a democratic society.
“It was terrifying,” said Jennifer, a St. Louis native.
A form of validation for the couple came this week when four police officers involved in the mass arrests were indicted by a federal grand jury: three for beating the undercover colleague and a fourth for conspiring to cover up the crime. The officers were not directly involved in the the arrests of the Burbridges, who declined to comment on the indictments.
The undercover officer was thrown to the ground, kicked and struck with batons, according to the indictment. The accusations are similar to Drew’s allegations laid out in a joint lawsuit the couple filed in federal court.
It doesn’t seem likely police will admit wrongdoing anytime soon. Officials continue to drag out litigation, and the court date is set for next year.
But it’s unconscionable — and un-American — that the Burbridges have to live with the actions police took that night. This is the United States, after all. The right to peacefully assemble, protest or take video of a public safety official is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Drew and Jennifer often reflect on the nightmare they encountered. Their story is a painful reminder that we all have a role in maintaining a just and civilized society.
“After having my life turned upside down by the St. Louis police kettle incident, my life has been a daily struggle of fear, anxiety, depression and panic attacks that incapacitate me,” Jennifer recently wrote in a Facebook post. “I am working each day to make sure I am not their victim but a survivor.”
Time will ultimately tell if the Burbridges’ claims are valid. The federal charges lends credence to the couple’s version of the events of Sept. 17, 2017. But a certain mistrust for authority lingers. Their lives were forever altered.
“It’s been hard to have trust in society when something like this happens at the hands of people that are meant to protect you,” Jennifer said. “It’s taken a long time to rebuild my trust in people and to gain the courage to simply get out in the world again. It has absolutely been challenging. For something to happen like this at the hands of police is life-changing.”