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McDermott: Police paralysis, political dysfunction and a murder on a sidewalk

McDermott: Police paralysis, political dysfunction and a murder on a sidewalk

Fatal shooting, another police investigation

Police investigate the scene of a January 2020 homicide in St. Louis. 

Photo by David Carson,

Last Sunday, I witnessed a fatal shooting on a sidewalk outside my apartment in downtown St. Louis. That’s a shocking enough sentence to absorb, but the shock doesn’t stop there. After years reading and sometimes writing about the dysfunction that plagues every level of this city’s criminal justice system, this was my first personal interaction with it. And it’s worse than you think.

My second-floor balcony overlooks St. Charles Street between 13th and 14th. Around 11:30 last Sunday night, I was sitting out there when I heard what I initially took to be a string of firecrackers, from the 14th Street end of the block. I realized they weren’t firecrackers when I saw a few men (Two? Three? It was dark, I wasn’t sure) crouched behind a car, hiding from the shots, which were apparently coming from across the street.

The shots stopped, and one of the men ran off, and another followed a moment later. That’s when I saw the body on the sidewalk. They would’ve had to step over it when they ran.

I called 911. I was on hold (yes, you read that right: on hold) when a guy in a big black motorcycle helmet approached the body from across the street, took pictures of the body with his cellphone, and shouted something at the body, as if he was angry at it.

I hung up on 911 — the recording kept telling me to please hold, but I literally couldn’t believe this was how it was supposed to work — and I re-dialed. And I got put on hold. And I re-dialed. And I got put on hold again. According to my call log, I spent 10 minutes trying to get a human on the phone.

Meanwhile, the guy in the motorcycle helmet kicked the body repeatedly, then stalked away. He wasn’t in a hurry.

I finally got through to a dispatcher, then went downstairs to meet with the police officers who arrived. I told the first cop I saw about the guy in the helmet. I assumed they’d want to start looking for motorcyclists in the area. Or send someone in the direction that the victim’s two friends had run. Or something.

The cop jotted it all down but asked no questions and made no immediate move to pass the information to anyone. Maybe 20 minutes later, a detective with the same going-through-the-motions bearing walked over and asked what I’d seen. I told him, stressing the part about the guy with the helmet, and pointing out where the other two had run. No one asked me for descriptions. Not race, age, clothing, nothing.

I overheard a bystander ask a young officer how he liked his job. The cop said he was tired of arresting people and seeing “nothing happen.” I assumed he was talking about the city circuit attorney’s office being in such disarray that murder cases are being dismissed for lack of prosecutors. It had been a big story in the local news recently — that, and the story about the city’s 911 call center being so understaffed that emergency calls are being put on hold.

A small item on the Post-Dispatch website the next morning, based on information from the police, was headlined, “Man shot in head in downtown St. Louis while attempting a robbery.”

“The victim of the attempted robbery,” said the story, “has not been located.”

Gee, I wonder why?

Again: What I saw were guys crouched behind a car as someone some distance away showered bullets at them. I don’t know what transpired before the shooting, but the image that the official explanation conjures up — of someone attempting to randomly rob someone else and immediately getting shot in self-defense — is absolutely not what happened. It does, however, sound like the perfect story to get a pesky case off someone’s desk.

The victim sprawled on the sidewalk, like most of St. Louis’ victims, was Black. I won’t pretend to be a mind-reader regarding what drives (or fails to drive) police action or political mobilization or community outrage in such cases — but just try to imagine this kind of top-to-bottom nonchalance by the whole system had the victim been, say, a white college kid sprawled out on a shopping mall parking lot in Clayton. It’s not imaginable.

But the problem goes beyond racism.

Our police are understaffed, overwhelmed and clearly lacking anything resembling morale. Our new mayor’s solution is … fewer cops.

City leaders for years have been obstinately unwilling to solve the readily solvable problem of not enough people answering 911 calls. (Hint: Hire more.) How many wounded victims have died while a call was on hold?

Our city prosecutor’s office apparently can’t prosecute its way out of a paper bag.

And all this dysfunction runs headlong into a deluge of firearms unleashed by the gun nuts who run Missouri government, and who refuse to allow the city to take even the most rudimentary steps toward disarming the shooters before they shoot.

St. Louis has one of the highest murder rates in America. Almost two-thirds of them go unsolved. You wonder how so many killers escape justice, until you watch the system in action — and then you wonder how they ever manage to catch one.

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