© 2012 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS • Wearing a red coat was Randy Hill's big mistake.
On Dec. 1, 2008, about 6 p.m., police alerted officers about a man fatally shot at Ninth and Cole streets. The suspect was a black man wearing a red coat and a white hat, fleeing on foot.
Done for the day at his factory job, Hill, 45, walked nearby, toward his home on Tyler Street. Two Fourth District officers spotted him at Ninth Street and Cass Avenue, huddled in his Cardinals jacket against the cold.
Officers Beary Bowles and Brian Strehl drew their guns and shouted orders. Hill raised his hands, then his right hand dropped. Bowles, a rookie, and Strehl, a 19-year decorated veteran, fired four times, wounding Hill in the knee and side. But Hill, it turned out, wasn't their guy.
What followed was a deadly force review contained within the walls of the department — as usual, with virtually no outside scrutiny.
St. Louis officers fire their guns at a higher rate than those in many other metropolitan forces, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis.
And unlike many other departments, St. Louis has no third party checking the process. An initiative to bring prosecutors on board was decided as the Post-Dispatch made inquiries for this story but has not yet been formalized. All investigative records pertaining to the officers' actions are sealed.
Moreover, a report the department commissioned in 2009 found serious fault in how deadly force was used and investigated.
Hill's shooting was one of 113 cases cleared by the department in the past five years, out of 117 total uses of deadly force.
Documents provided under a Sunshine Act request about the Hill case did not include reports showing that another man, Justin Johnson Jr., 24, was ultimately charged with the Cole Street murder — based on fingerprints, the gun and witness identification. Johnson was convicted last month.
All decisions about the officers' actions were made in private. When they were ruled justified, the outcome was never volunteered to the public.
"There's a cloak of secrecy with these things," said Hill's attorney, Gonzalo Fernandez. "The repercussion is it allows an environment of abuse to continue."
Hill had been unarmed. He had no white hat. What police interpreted as a move for a gun, he said later, was his grabbing for a white lunch bag slipping from his grasp. Still, police sought to charge Hill with assault on an officer; the circuit attorney's office refused.
Bowles, in a 2010 deposition, described the confusion: "As he had his hands up, his — his face kind of — his face was a little bit disturbed like — like he was kind of upset or kind of freaking out ... I seen him with his right arm or right hand kind of reach into his jacket ... more of a lunging kind of move inward and outward and that's when — that's when I felt a little — little weird, a little upset, a little scared and with him the jerking motions, I fired."
Hill sued, claiming failures in training and investigation that left officers to "believe that their actions will not be scrutinized and that they will not be held accountable for their actions."
This spring, the Board of Police Commissioners voted in private to settle Hill's suit for $400,000.
POLICE HERE FIRE MORE OFTEN
An analysis of police data shows that in the five years ending in 2010, St. Louis officers fired up to three times more often, per reported violent crime, than those protecting other, similar-sized populations. The rate was 1.6 times higher than that of St. Louis County officers.
There is no national database of shots fired by police, but the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently compiled data from 16 departments in the most populated cities. St. Louis, not on the list, easily topped all of them in shots fired per violent crime. Officers here fired 1.85 times more than in the city ranked highest in that study, Denver. On a straight per capita basis, St. Louis officers fired up to eight times more often than others.
Chief Dan Isom, in a recent interview, said his officers showed "an incredible amount of restraint." He explained, "What people don't see is that many times officers are chasing people with weapons and they don't fire and maybe they could have."
He said that although officers were not automatically presumed correct to fire, there was recognition that "if someone pulls a gun on an officer, he doesn't have a whole bunch of choices, and he doesn't have a whole lot of time to make a decision on what to do."
Internal affairs detectives review all uses of deadly force — whether anyone is struck or not. By policy, gunfire can be used only to protect a life or stop a violent, armed felon from fleeing.
From January 2007 through Sept. 30, 2011, the department cleared more than 96 percent of the shootings by officers. In the four violations of policy, two resulted in one-day suspensions, one a two-day suspension, and in another the officer was fired. A fifth, pending, case was recommended for a written reprimand.
There also were four accidental firearm discharges that resulted in discipline ranging from a written reprimand to a two-day suspension.
The most recent case involved a rookie quietly dismissed after firing three shots Jan. 9, 2010, while off-duty at home, at a group of teens he believed were trying to break into his car. That officer, whose name was redacted in reports made public, waited a half hour to report the incident and gave differing stories, officials said.
Six cases resulted in retraining that was not considered discipline. The 106 other police shootings were deemed justified and tactically sound.
Of shots resulting in departmental action, most missed.
Only one of 62 cases in which a suspect was struck but not killed resulted in discipline. One of 15 fatal shootings resulted in tactical training not considered discipline.
For comparison, a three-year review in 2004 found that federal officers were cleared by review boards in 88 percent of studied shootings.
The Las Vegas analysis said officers there were cleared 97 percent of the time. The review board there was criticized, even by former members, as a rubber stamp.
ANALYSIS FINDS FAULTS
In 2008, St. Louis police hired David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist, to examine the prior five years of officer-involved shootings. Klinger is a deadly force specialist who as a 23-year-old Los Angeles police officer in 1981 killed a man who used a butcher knife to attack another officer.
His report portrayed a St. Louis department that did not properly prepare officers for deadly encounters, or investigate them thoroughly.
At the time, the only post-academy training on deadly force was a monthly, computerized refresher on policy.
Klinger wrote that when a shot missed, officers on the scene — sometimes the one who fired — investigated it themselves. He called it 'simply unacceptable" and "egregious." There were also problems when detectives were called in for suspects struck, he said.
Generally, he said, there was confusion over who was in charge, and no protocol for interviewing the officer, taking the weapon or measuring the scene. Files lacked diagrams, autopsies and dispatch recordings. Investigating officers often did nothing to identify witnesses or protect evidence.
Klinger found that "arguably the most critical component," officers' statements, "lacked basic and vital information."
Tactical moves were not reviewed, and investigators offered no conclusions, he added.
"It is difficult to draw conclusions when so much of the information needed to do so is not available," he noted.
Isom, in a recent interview, said the department had since overhauled its practices. He said it was in the third year of annual training on dealing with armed suspects and hostage situations.
Homicide detectives now have a checklist to follow if a police shot hits someone, and district detectives examine missed shots, using the same protocols. A tactical review has been added.
The department has rehired Klinger to review four years of shootings since changes were made.
"We are a better department as a result of his findings," Isom said.
TRANSPARENCY IS ISSUE
It's hard to know whether Isom is right. Police release initial information about many officer-involved shootings, but that's where transparency ends.
Unlike many major cities, St. Louis has no independent review of deadly force.
Here, prosecutors have been formally brought into the process only if the department decides on its own that a law was broken.
There has not been a case in recent memory in which an officer's shots resulted in criminal charges. When charges are sought against a suspect, the circuit attorney's office has seen police reports of that alleged crime, but not the department's review of its officers' actions. A prosecutor's spokesperson said they were sometimes informally consulted.
"If you have the police investigating themselves, it's hard to get objectivity," MacArthur Moten, an attorney in an ongoing wrongful-death suit against the department, complained.
In late November, the department took information on 10 fatal shootings by police to the circuit attorney's office for review. A police spokeswoman said it was not in reaction to Post-Dispatch inquiries, which began in the spring, but part of a new collaboration with prosecutors.
Internal affairs takes findings clearing officers to police commissioners — the mayor and four gubernatorial appointees who run the department — to consider and vote upon in private. The result is never volunteered publicly but, by law, the department provides a tally to those who know to ask. In the past five years, the board has never voted against endorsing a shooting.
Cases in which an officer is disciplined — arguably of greatest public interest — go to the board only if there is an appeal.
Investigative files in deadly force cases are considered closed unless a criminal charge against the officer results, which is rare.
Basic police reports, which provide no analysis, are provided only at a cost, despite a recent circuit court ruling that all public records should be viewable for free. The Post-Dispatch paid $226 for reports on 13 cases plus a tally of shots fired for five years.
Isom said he believed the department was "extremely transparent," pointing to Klinger's review. But he said investigative records were personnel matters and thus could be closed.
The department has relied heavily on this public records law exemption to shield internal affairs files. It's the subject of an ongoing court battle over access to internal reports on a nonshooting issue — some officers' use of 2006 World Series tickets seized from scalpers — that may better define the balance between public interest and officer privacy.
But there is nothing in Missouri law that prohibits police from releasing the material.
"There are a lot of things I guess we could release, but personnel issues, investigative techniques, we don't release as part of our policy," Isom responded.
OFFICERS' NAMES SECRET
Names of officers who fire shots are withheld until a department "threat assessment" for potential retaliation deems them safe for release. It's a fairly recent practice — before 2009 they were never officially made public, although the Post-Dispatch commonly obtained them.
Moten's client, Delores Henry, learned from the news that her grandson, Darrell Williams, 21, was one of two men fatally shot by police after the pair reportedly reached for guns in a stolen pickup that crashed during a 2009 pursuit.
Henry said that her family was never contacted by police and that incident reports she requested had the two officers' names blacked out.
Henry said she was sympathetic with police; her father and brother collectively spent about 60 years on the force, and her father once came home with bullet holes in his hat and pants leg. But she called the secrecy surrounding her grandson's case troubling.
"It just eats you up worrying about it and thinking about it," she said. "The police department is supposed to be something you can depend upon and trust."
After the Post-Dispatch wrote in 2009 about Henry's attempts to get the officers' names, Isom ordered department lawyers to reverse the long-held redaction practice. The two names were released. But they were withheld again in records requested for this article. A police spokeswoman said new threats had been received.
That case, according to the department, led to the threat assessment policy, which until last month was unwritten and inconsistently enforced. In refusing to release officers' names for this article, the department provided specific guidelines, with different threat levels based on variables such as gang affiliations, criminal history and threats from a suspect. A spokesperson said the guidelines were developed Dec. 2.
OTHERS RELEASE CONCLUSIONS
Klinger, in an interview, credited police for opening files to him. But speaking generally, he said departments should at a minimum release their investigative conclusions.
"It's vital, in fact," he said. "There's nothing that is a greater exercise of state power than an officer shooting somebody."
Klinger noted that disclosure of officers' names allowed the public to know if some were more prone to shooting. The Los Angeles police released his name, although it has since stopped the practice out of safety concerns.
That department posts investigative conclusions on its website, detailing extensively what was decided in each deadly force case and why. It was among several moves toward transparency prompted by an agreement with the Justice Department.
Los Angeles now invites the state inspector general and district attorney's office into each investigation from the start, a practice the FBI encourages.
It was one of several forces to make changes as court rulings and independent reviews around the country pushed for greater transparency in recognition of the power of the gun as law enforcement's highest responsibility.
For years, Seattle police resisted releasing records as part of a union agreement. A judge recently ordered the department to pay more than $150,000 to a 72-year-old man who was denied internal investigative reports related to his excessive-force complaint.
Patrick Preston, the lawyer who won that case, said Seattle recently shifted its stance to meet a state supreme court ruling requiring greater access. A recent, scathing federal review also urged the department to reform how it investigates use of force.
Preston said the access allowed in St. Louis sounded "bleak" compared with Seattle.
Many departments release all information in a deadly force investigation. Some use civilian reviewers or independent monitors. In several states, details are public and reviewed by grand juries and coroners' inquests or judges.
"If we allow individuals to shoot others, then they are accountable and responsible for their conduct," said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which works to increase transparency. He said public scrutiny was necessary and "comes with the territory."
Isom said he might be open to offering an investigative conclusion, as Klinger mentioned.
"Are there other things we could glean from being more transparent?" Isom asked. "I'm not closed to other ideas or suggestions on how we could do that."
He added, "At the end of the day, is it important to me and to every officer that people realize that we are using the ultimate force appropriately? Yes, that's why the study was commissioned."