ST. LOUIS • State Rep. Mike Leara, R-South County, had searched his suspect twice when he put him in the back of a police cruiser.
“You sure you don’t want to check him again?” asked Officer Nick Manasco.
“No, I got him,” Leara said. “He’s clean.”
A few seconds later, Leara had a gunshot wound to the chest.
The gun fired only blanks. The “suspect” was St. Louis police Officer Brandon Johnson. And the scene was part of a “police officer for a day” event hosted Monday by the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association on the parking lot of the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union No. 36 Training School.
“I can’t believe I missed that gun,” Leara said, after he bent over and clutched his chest, visibly shaking. “Even though this is pretend, it was really scary and frightening, even though it was just staged.”
Leara was among a group of elected officials who took part in the event, which began with officers giving the group a crash course in a classroom setting on basic police academy training and tactics.
The police union invited about 60 people, including all of St. Louis’ aldermen, civil service commission members, local state representatives and senators to the event. In all, 18 people attended, said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the police association.
“We’re not going to pretend like it has nothing to do with Ferguson and what happened in the Shaw neighborhood,” Roorda said of the event. “There’s another side to the story that hasn’t been told, and some of our biggest detractors have been elected officials.
“We felt it was important for them to get a view from behind the badge and to know things aren’t as black and white as they are on TV.”
After “basic training,” officers sent the officials out in pairs to respond to two scenes. One scenario featured a prostitute soliciting johns while her pimp was nearby. Another scenario included several men suspected of dealing drugs.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, was in disbelief that he missed a drug suspect putting drugs in the suspect’s mouth. He questioned how officers who recover drugs at scenes make cases against suspects if they don’t see it on them.
“They’re going to say you’re free-casing him,” Boyd said of a term often used to claim police planted drugs on suspects.
Manasco explained that with experience, officers recognize suspicious movements and behavior and that forensics also play a role in proving where drugs are found.
“This stuff happens so fast,” Boyd said. “It’s nerve-racking in a way. You think to yourself, ‘Am I doing everything right?’
“It’s so easy to judge and say things like, ‘If it was me, why not shoot to wound?’ But I learned today that you can shoot someone in the leg and they can be high or something like that and still walking.”
Boyd said he believed every member of the city’s aldermanic public safety committee should attend the training.
Boyd’s partner for the day was Rep. Sue Meredith, D-St. Louis. She was the only one who found the drug suspect’s gun in that scenario.
“I don’t want to shoot anybody,” Meredith said.
“Nobody wants to shoot anybody,” Manasco responded.
Meredith added that she believes all state legislators should participate in scenario-based events.
Roorda said the union will probably host another similar event.
The officers appreciated the chance to show the officials what police experience.
Johnson said he will never forget the two times he was “shot and killed” during training exercises while he was in the police academy.
Johnson distracted Leara while the state representative frisked him twice. He then fired the would-be fatal round at Leara from inside the police cruiser.
“That guy is going to be seeing that in his dreams,” Johnson said.
J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the event.