St. Louis Police Chief Ron Battelle says he welcomes dialogue with the public. He says his department is run by professionals with the highest respect for the law. When things go wrong, as they did in the killing of Annette Green, he insists his officers are accountable.
"We have nothing to hide," he says.
But when it comes to releasing public information, the St. Louis County Police Department's response depends on who's doing the asking.
On April 19, the Riverfront Times requested any reports or written findings by any internal review board that examined the Green shooting. Five days later, Lt. Andrea Kuhnert, commander of the county police records bureau, told the paper that no such documents existed. "At this time, there are no final documents prepared by the Bureau of Professional Responsibility or any other internal review board," Kuhnert wrote in a letter responding to the paper's inquiry, which was made under the state Sunshine Law. "Consequently, there are no such records."
But that wasn't true.
Three weeks after the RFT made its request for written findings, the police gave a citizens' review panel, the Police Practices Review Committee, a March 14 memo to Battelle written by Lt. Lawrence Stulce, commander of the Bureau of Professional Responsibility. In the memo, Stulce gives a synopsis of the shooting, along with a recommendation: "Based on my review of the facts and circumstances of the incident, the Bureau of Professional Responsibility recommends that the use of deadly force be classified as justified." On March 19, exactly one month before the RFT requested such documents, Battelle OK'd the recommendation by signing the memo next to a box marked "Final Approval."
The withholding of the memo from the RFT isn't the only instance of St. Louis County police's flouting the Sunshine Law. Long accustomed to waving off inquiring reporters like so many flies, St. Louis County police and county prosecutor Robert McCulloch have denied media requests for the names of the officers who participated in the Green raid and the Jack in the Box shootings nearly a year ago, even though state law contains no provision for withholding the names of police officers simply because they're cops. After being officially rebuffed, the RFT discovered some of the names in the Green case through other methods. As for the Jack in the Box shootings, McCulloch has said he'll never reveal the names of the officers who fired, even at the conclusion of a federal investigation that county officials have used as justification for withholding all records pertaining to the case (the Sunshine Law allows the withholding of records if an investigation is pending).
In the Green case, the department gives differing answers as to why it won't reveal names. Officer Rick Eckhard, the department's media liaison, first told the RFT that he couldn't give up the names because of a pending federal investigation. Told that there is no federal investigation in the Green case, Eckhard said he'd check; otherwise, he said he saw no reason the names shouldn't be made public. But the RFT got a different excuse when it asked for a written explanation of why names are blacked out of reports. Kuhnert cited a clause in the Sunshine Law that allows police to redact information that is "reasonably likely" to pose a danger to the safety of any victim, witness, undercover officer "or other person."
County police haven't explained how releasing the names might pose a danger to anyone. Under the Sunshine Law, secrecy is supposed to be the exception rather than the rule for all parts of government, including the police. The names of dozens of municipal and county drug detectives are a matter of public record in St. Louis County Circuit Court, which maintains files of search warrant applications. As government employees, their identities, compensation and other personnel data are public information.
St. Louis County police have chosen the citizens' review panel over the media when it comes to information about the Green case and the Jack in the Box shootings. The department on April 30 told the RFT it wouldn't talk about the cases. The letter declining an interview request came after the RFT, at the department's request, sent a faxed list of 15 questions. "As the incidents you are seeking information about are under internal review, as well as federal investigation and the positive public scrutiny of the Practices Review Committee , we decline an interview regarding these matters beyond what has been publicly released to date," said Sgt. Michael Mowery in a written response.
Mowery's letter came a few days after Lt. Tom Jackson of the Drug Enforcement Bureau and Lt. Jeff Bader of the Tactical Operations Unit had already answered some of the RFT's inquiries. But important questions have gone unanswered. For example, Jackson refused to answer any questions about the informant whose tip led to a search warrant for Green's house, saying the department would only answer to the review panel. "We really don't want to talk about things that we haven't talked about in there, to give that body a chance to ask all those questions and address all those issues," he says. "We're not even going to address the informant issue at all until everything is done. Right now, everything that we want to say specifically about the case, we feel it should be done in the forum that's been set up."
So far, the panel hasn't asked any questions about the informant. Just how hard the panel will press the police is questionable. The panel has agreed to allow the police to black out the names of officers, as well as those of civilian witnesses, in a police report on the shooting. In that report, the police assigned numbers to officers. A cross-check with open court records raises at least one question. The detective who wrote the report on Green's death said the officer who obtained the search warrant was the same one who handled the case that resulted in a search of the house a year earlier, according to the police report provided to the panel. However, Officer Richard Wagner handled that investigation, according to his sworn affidavit used to get a warrant last year. According to court records, Officer Gerald Shepard was in charge of the most recent investigation. Police did not return a call from the RFT to explain the discrepancy.
Several members at the most recent meeting applauded Bader, Jackson and other police officials for their professionalism and thoroughness. They also wondered aloud about the scope of their inquiry. Several members agreed the panel isn't supposed to decide whether police acted properly in the Green and Berkeley shootings. Rather, they said, the panel is supposed to make recommendations for improvements to general policies and procedures.
The panel has already backed down once. During its second meeting, the group approved a motion directing county counselor Robert Grant to ask a judge to let them see the records in the Jack in the Box shootings, including a surveillance videotape that captured the action and might explain why police put themselves in the path of a car driven by a man with a motive to flee. Instead of going to court, Grant went to the U.S. Attorney's Office and brought assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Muchnick to the next panel meeting. The federal probe is now at a critical point, said Muchnick, who pleaded with the group not to demand the records, at least now. Making the videotape and other records public at this point could provoke false testimony from witnesses who have yet to be interviewed by federal investigators nearly a year after the shootings, he said. "We want to be able to say we interviewed every person who was a witness," Muchnick said. "We think that public disclosure of this information would be extremely harmful to the federal investigation. We want to do this right." Left unsaid was how damaging 10 months' time might be to the memories of eyewitnesses who have yet to be interviewed.
Muchnick refused to say how many witnesses have been interrogated so far or how many have yet to be interviewed. He guessed the investigation would be over by early summer but asked for an extra month when a panel member suggested a deadline of June 1 to turn over the records. And the panel went along, deciding to wait until the feds are ready.
"I don't think any of us would want to compromise an investigation," said Dr. Daniel Scodary, one of 10 panel members.