Answers come easy for St. Louis County police and prosecutors when they try to explain why police shot and killed three unarmed African-Americans in two anti-drug operations in less than a year's time.
Annette Green, gunned down in her Wellston home in February during a drug raid, died because she didn't obey an officer when he told her to stop, authorities say. The cop thought the bolt she was holding was a gun or a knife.
Earl Murray, a suspected drug dealer, was shot to death in a Jack in the Box parking lot in Berkeley on June 12, 2000, because officers feared he would hit them with his car, say police and Robert McCulloch, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.
Ronald Beasley, who was in the passenger seat of Murray's Ford Escort, was simply in the way when police opened fire.
Had Green and Murray obeyed officers and stopped when ordered to do so, no one would have died, say police and prosecutors.
But even law-enforcement officials sometimes have trouble with simple questions.
In May, the Riverfront Times asked McCulloch why Green wasn't prosecuted after police recovered crack from her home during a raid the year before she died. If Green, who already had a pending drug charge, had been prosecuted in 2000, she might not have been in the line of fire when police returned to her home in February. Asked why his office let Green walk after finding drugs, McCulloch had a simple answer: He told us the substance found on her dining-room table wasn't cocaine [Rushton, "Who's Next?" RFT, May 23]. In other words: No coke, no crime.
The only problem is, McCulloch was wrong. At a recent meeting of a citizens' police-practices-review committee, St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle, in response to questioning by activist John Chasnoff, insisted his officers had found the real thing in the raid on Green's home in 2000.
According to a lab report on the substance recovered during the 2000 raid, obtained by the RFT after Battelle made his comments, the pebble of suspected crack was, in fact, crack.
McCulloch's explanation for his mistake? It was a clerical error.
"I was going by our records, which indicated that the items were not controlled [substances]," McCulloch says. "And apparently whoever put that into our records put in the wrong code. It was actually controlled. It's a tenth of a gram. What should have been in there, essentially, is, it's a lack of evidence: There are five or six people in the house; there's a tenth of a gram found sitting in plain view on the dining-room table. We had a hard time figuring who it goes to. Nobody said, 'It's mine.'"
The police who raided Green's house in 2000 didn't have any problem assigning blame. They arrested Green and booked her on suspicion of drug possession. They collected evidence and took more than 60 photographs. Police spokesman Rick Eckhard doesn't want dopers getting the idea that they can duck punishment by dropping their drugs on the floor when the cops come through the door.
"A lack of evidence?" Eckhard asks. "It's her home, and there's drugs in her home, and you want to know why she was arrested? There's enough probable cause to arrest her and take it to the PA. And then it's his decision to decide whether or not the warrant should be issued, which is actually issued by a judge. Sure, there was enough probable cause to make the arrest. Every time we walk into a room and the guy throws the pot between three people and says, 'It's not mine,' we're just going to say, 'OK'? I hate to think that would be the message. Was there probable cause? Yeah, [the arresting officer] had dope, and he had the owner of the house. That's Mr. McCulloch's decision as to the prosecution of it. That's the simple answer."
Chasnoff, who has attended every meeting of the police-review committee since it was appointed in March to look into the Jack in the Box and Green cases, suggests that the confusion between the prosecutor and the police on a simple question -- whether drugs were recovered during a raid -- shows just how much the public has yet to learn about the killings. Judging from what he's seen, he isn't confident the committee will provide that information or accomplish anything meaningful.
The 10-member panel, handpicked by County Executive Buzz Westfall and County Council members in response to public outcry over the Wellston and Berkeley killings, is supposed to be an independent body charged with examining the two cases, reviewing police practices in general and making recommendations for improvement. Like other activists who have watched the panel in action, Chasnoff says the meetings have turned into love-fests between the police and the committee, which has heard plenty from prosecutors and police brass but nothing from civilian witnesses. Despite the state Sunshine Law, the committee has allowed the police to withhold the name of every cop who participated in the drug raid on Green's house. More than a year after the fact, the panel has also been reluctant to demand records from the Jack in the Box killings, notably a surveillance videotape from the parking lot on which the entire shooting was reportedly captured.
Chasnoff and his wife, Susie, who has also attended every committee meeting, were particularly aghast when the panel decided it didn't need to review transcripts of St. Louis County grand-jury proceedings in the Green shooting. "The only record of fact is the grand jury," Chasnoff notes. "All the witnesses are there, and they're testifying under oath. Otherwise, you're just getting the police synopsis of what somebody else said when they weren't under oath -- and that seems to me like a really ridiculous way to go about getting the facts when you have something obviously better at your disposal. We made the point to them that if they didn't look at the grand jury, they couldn't pretend to really be investigating the facts and should only make the most general statements about the incident as a result."
Transcripts could also have helped quell suspicion among activists that McCulloch -- whose father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty -- goes easy on cops involved in shooting cases. By making transcripts public, skeptics and supporters could decide for themselves whether the prosecutor's office fairly presented the Green case to grand jurors, who declined to issue indictments.
But first, transcripts would have to be created from tapes of the grand-jury proceedings. That would have cost an estimated $4,000. The panel, after listening to the cops defend themselves, decided they'd heard enough and didn't want to spend the money. That leaves Chasnoff flabbergasted. As a taxpayer in a county of nearly 1 million people, Chasnoff says, he'd gladly pay his share to get the transcripts. He points out that the police have already spent plenty of money putting their spin on things. "I wonder what the cost of the police time, making their presentations, I wonder what that has cost," he says.
John King, a land-use attorney who serves as the panel's chairman, says he's not surprised by criticism. "I'm sure those concerns are out there: what should we be doing and how should we be doing it and that we should be taking some action in that area of talking to others besides just the police department," he says.
Although some panel members have talked about bringing things to closure, King says he doesn't think the committee is finished. "I'm not in that mode yet," he says. "I think that probably we will look at a lot of things, some more things, before it's all over with." Among other things, King says, he wants to examine how police use informants in drug cases. And he plans to talk with defense attorneys outside panel meetings in an attempt to make informed decisions. "I've talked to a lot of outside people," he says. "I've talked to a former St. Louis city officer, a black officer. I've talked to a black officer in the county. I intend to talk to some other people. That all goes toward making up my decision about what's going on.
"Hopefully we can somehow begin a process of getting a better relationship between the police department and the general public," King says. But that may prove impossible if the public's attitude toward the committee itself doesn't change first.