By Sam Levin
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"He was among the best officers there," says Lt. Jeff Bader, commander of the Tactical Operations Unit. "You put your best up there. They have a lot of confidence in the officer involved in the shooting. They know he can handle his own problems."
Police brass have expressed regret but won't apologize, saying Green didn't stop when ordered, leaving Steib with no choice but to pull the trigger. "He has no time left to make a decision," Bader says. "As tragic as these decisions are, he either runs or protects his fellow officers."
For police, this was an honest, if deadly, mistake. For Williams, who identified her sister's body, it's something far more serious. "They murdered her," she says. "They're covering their tracks. That's all. You know how they do. I ain't got to tell you, you ain't got to tell me. It doesn't make no difference if she was a drug addict or what.
"She was a human being."
Green's death -- and the police response to it -- has ratcheted up anger and distrust of law enforcement in a community already outraged by the shooting deaths of Earl Murray and Ron Beasley on June 12 last year. Beasley was just along for the ride when Murray allegedly sold crack to an undercover officer assigned to the county Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force, a unit composed of detectives from the county and a dozen municipalities. Municipal detectives assigned to the task force are deputized by the county and must follow all county-department rules and regulations.
Like Green, Murray was, at most, a chump-change dealer, hardly worth the risk police took when they decided to take him down during rush hour in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box near the Interstate 70 interchange at Hanley Road in Berkeley. As with Green, the plan to nab Murray was relatively simple: An undercover officer would buy drugs from him, then signal other officers, who would move in and make the arrest. But Murray didn't want to go to jail, and so he stomped on the accelerator of his Ford Escort as officers approached. First he hit reverse, locking bumpers with a Drug Enforcement Administration SUV that had moved in behind him. Then he tried going forward, spinning his wheels while a Dellwood detective assigned to the task force and a DEA agent invited to help with the bust stood in the car's path. If the Escort broke free of the SUV, the two drug warriors feared they'd be hit. And so they opened fire, killing both men.
Once again, the take was insignificant -- police found a quarter-ounce of crack and a small amount of heroin under the bloodstained front seat. Once again, neither man carried a weapon. After about a week on leave and three weeks on desk duty, the Dellwood officer returned to the street, more than a month before a grand jury agreed with police and prosecutors who say she fired in self-defense. DEA officials won't comment on when their agent returned to duty or in what capacity. Although the entire operation was under the direction of the county drug task force that is attached to the county's drug-enforcement bureau within the St. Louis County Police Department, county police officials have distanced themselves from the killings, noting that neither of the shooters drew county paychecks. "They weren't shot by my officers," says Chief Ron Battelle.
That's not how the community sees it. During a Feb. 26 town-hall meeting at the Grace Church of God in Christ in Wellston, many in the audience of about 100 drew comparisons between the Green and Berkeley cases. "If you don't see us as human beings and shoot us like animals, that's a problem," thundered Tiahmo Ra-uf, a local leader of the National Action Network founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Such angry talk drew loud applause while Battelle and four County Council members assured the crowd that they took the sentiments seriously. Councilman Robert A. Young IV (D-2nd District) admits he's not sure where the drug war is going, but he's not willing to let up. "Disbanding the tactical unit, I don't believe at this point, is something I want to do," he told the crowd. "What other tactics are we going to use? These criminals are armed to the teeth sometimes. Mistakes can be made."
The council and County Executive Buzz Westfall have appointed a 10-member citizens review panel, the Police Practices Review Committee, which will analyze the killing in Wellston, as well as the Berkeley shootings. It's an unprecedented step, one that could make the cops accountable to someone other than internal police investigators. The panel says it plans to study both cases and recommend any needed changes in policies and procedures.
But several civil-rights activists have already dismissed the panel as too little, too late. For one thing, the panel has no power to subpoena information from the police, so they're stuck working with whatever the cops choose to tell them. Activists also criticize the panel's membership, which was determined by Westfall and County Council members with little public input. "They're a group of custodians of the status quo, and political handpicked lackeys," complains the Rev. Phillip Duvall. Duvall and other critics say any police-review panel should include at least one member with a relative or close friend who has had a drug problem. Otherwise, it's too easy to cast drug users as bad guys in black hats who deserve to get shot at. Duvall suggests including someone who has personally struggled with drugs, noting that a person can mend his ways. "Is the president of the United States less credible because he has a DWI conviction?" Duvall asks.
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