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By Dennis Brown
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."
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