ST. LOUIS • Public outcry following the revelation Friday that an 18-year-old was shot in the back during an encounter with two St. Louis police officers earlier this week has altered the way officials will handle the investigation.
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has announced that her office will conduct an investigation into the shooting simultaneously with the one being done by police — a departure from past practice of awaiting the results of the police investigation before conducting her own.
Meanwhile, an attorney for the officers says there is a reasonable explanation for the site of the fatal wound.
“My client fired in defense of his partner,” said Brian Millikan, who is representing both officers who fired at Mansur Ball-Bey.
The officers were in separate positions in the backyard when one of them fired three shots and the other fired a single shot, which struck Ball-Bey in the back, killing him, Millikan said.
“Both policemen had multiple opportunities to engage this guy and they didn’t do that because he never pointed a weapon at them until he got to the rear yard,” Millikan said of his clients, with whom he sat Friday as they gave their statements to detectives at police headquarters. “But when (Ball-Bey) turns toward (one officer) with a gun that has an extended clip with a 30-round magazine, the policemen have no choice but to pull the trigger.
“(The officer) has 16 rounds and only fires one time. The narrative that’s out there now is that (Ball-Bey) was shot in the back because he was running away, and that’s just not true.”
Chief Sam Dotson said at a press conference Friday that he could not yet say whether the shooting was justified because the facts were still developing. He also urged the public to withhold judgment on the shooting until all the facts from the investigations were in.
“There is no benefit to not putting out the complete truth,” Dotson said. “What the community has to understand is that the complete truth takes time to put together.”
Dotson said two officers fired at Ball-Bey Wednesday as he pointed a gun at them while trying to flee from a raid at what the chief described as a known place “for drugs and guns” on Walton Avenue near Page Boulevard. Police said Ball-Bey did not fire; no officers were hurt.
The only round that struck Ball-Bey hit him in the mid- to upper-back, according to St. Louis Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham.
Graham declined to elaborate on the trajectory and exact location of the wound, saying he did not want to compromise any of the incoming witness statements.
Dotson said: “The new facts by themselves do not paint a complete picture. I do not want to speculate on the outcome. It’s more important now than ever that the facts be exposed properly.”
Apart from two officers involved in the shooting, Dotson said one civilian witness corroborated official statements that Ball-Bey had pointed a gun at officers. He called on more witnesses to come forward, including a 14-year-old who fled from the scene.
Jermaine Wooten, an attorney for Ball-Bey’s family, said witnesses and family members had told him Ball-Bey had been unarmed.
“I told them, ‘If you want me to represent you, don’t lie to me. Did he have a gun?’ And they all said, ‘No,’ ” Wooten said.
Ball-Bey’s cousin, Shonettda Ball, owns the house where the shooting took place. She said she didn’t know why he had been there. She said that only one tenant remained, and that when that person leaves she plans to board up the house because she is tired of the police harassing the residents.
The two police officers involved in the shooting are white and in their late 20s and early 30s. Millikan and the department have not released their names. Dotson said they had been police officers for about seven years.
“I have not seen anything in their disciplinary histories that cause me pause,” Dotson said.
Hours after Dotson’s press conference, Joyce announced at a separate one that her office would conduct the simultaneous investigation into the shooting.
Joyce told reporters that calls from the community and leaders prompted her to begin her work immediately.
“It is vital that we conduct a thorough, meticulous and independent review of this and all officer-involved shootings,” Joyce said. “We will work as quickly as possible to gather available facts, evidence and witness statements.”
Joyce added: “I want nothing more than to reach the right conclusion here. I want there to be peace in this city.”
Adolphus M. Pruitt, president of the St. Louis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, joined Joyce at the press conference and called parallel investigations “powerful tools.”
Pruitt also said he planned to request that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster conduct a full review of the St. Louis Police Department’s policies and that Koster assist in securing funding for body cameras for police officers.
Dotson said he welcomed Joyce’s review, adding that his department was used to conducting joint investigations with other agencies, such as the FBI.
“It’s not a problem,” he said of Joyce’s involvement. “What it does is speeds up the investigative process and the final report, so the public gets answers more quickly and I think that’s a good thing.”
He said he also planned to send the department’s final report on the shooting to Richard Callahan, the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, for his review.
The police department’s Force Investigative Unit turned over investigations into the fatal police shootings of Kajieme Powell and VonDerrit Myers to Joyce’s office months ago.
Myers died in October. Joyce released her findings in that case in May, saying the officer involved should not be charged. Myers also sustained gunshots to the back of his legs, a point his family and their attorneys, who include Wooten, said illustrated he had been running away.
David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist who has studied hundreds of officer-involved shootings, said it was not unheard of for those killed by police to sustain wounds to their backs. The Supreme Court has ruled it constitutional to shoot someone in the back if an officer believes that person could be a threat.
“The issue isn’t where the round hits, it’s what the perceived threat was at the time the officer fired,” he said. “If it was reasonable for these officers to believe he was a threat, then shots in the back mean nothing. If it’s unreasonable, then he shouldn’t have been shot, but we don’t know without knowing all the information.”
Joyce said Friday that she would release the findings of the Powell investigation in the next few weeks. He died in August.
Dotson also urged the community to remain calm as the investigation continued, but said he had briefed Gov. Jay Nixon on the situation and put officers on 12-hour shifts through the weekend as a precaution in light of the protests that have followed the shooting. On Wednesday, a car and a building were torched and a store was ransacked during a protest near the shooting scene.
After a protest late Thursday, which included blocking traffic in the Central West End, Dotson said some of the demonstrators had damaged cars and assaulted people.
One of the victims was St. Louis Alderman Lyda Krewson, who said that she had been shoved into a fence and that a man she was with had been punched.
Lilly Fowler, Nicholas J.C. Pistor and J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The first name of Shonettda Ball, a relative of Mansur Ball-Bey, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.