Open Season

Police crackdown on guns and gangs runs into Way of the Gun mentality

It's a simple power equation that has played out time and again for the cops of St. Louis: Force begets force and gunfire begets gunfire, and the young tough you tap on the shoulder is probably armed and feels no qualms about snapping a cap or four at an officer.

Doesn't matter whether the cop identifies himself or herself as a law-enforcement officer. Doesn't matter whether it's a late-night roll-up in unmarked cars or a traffic accident. Street justice, as it plays out in tougher neighborhoods all over this city, now knows no boundaries and very few rules.

The one rule that still applies is this: If you're rolling on our turf, it's assumed you're another armed-and-dangerous player, and we will light you up. It plays both ways, as evidenced by last month's shooting death of teenager Stanley Parker, age seventeen: Once the shooting starts, the cops will shoot back, repeatedly, clear target or not, and somebody will likely take a permanent cold fall. Week after week, the undeniable force of this rule has become apparent as gun battles between cops and suspects have erupted, most of the incidents gang-related or the result of cops' responding to reports of gunfire on the street.

On October 14, Officer Christine Fernandez, a five-year veteran of the St. Louis police force, found out just how violent a routine traffic investigation can become when she tried to stop Rodney Tate from leaving the scene. Tate allegedly pulled a stainless-steel 9mm automatic and fired four shots at Fernandez, wounding her in the groin. Her left thigh bone snapped as she hit the pavement and returned fire at Tate, striking the suspect four times in twelve shots, wounding him in both legs and the left foot. Police followed a bloody trail and arrested Tate, charging him with first-degree assault on a police officer, armed criminal action and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon.

Fernandez was wearing a bulletproof vest when she was shot. And in the wake of the shooting, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa ordered all officers on duty to start wearing vests, citing a surge in gun violence involving officers. Those incidents include:

· The September 2 killing of Parker, who, police say, was with a group of young men who exchanged gunfire with police cruising in unmarked cars to answer a call about reported gang activity near O'Fallon Park. The flip side of deadly force was evident in the Parker shoot; Officer Keith McGull told investigators that he pumped nine shots down a dark alley after hearing gunfire from the group. An unfired derringer was found near Parker's body; the teenager had been shot in the back. No charges have been filed against McGull, but some gun experts question whether this was truly a righteous shoot because McGull didn't have a clear target when he fired.

· The September 13 killing of a suspect in an alleged carjacking by an off-duty detective who was severely beaten in the struggle. Cornelius "Katt" Davis crashed into three cars, then tried to hijack another auto occupied by a family.

In the middle of this mix of carnage comes the deadly October 16 rush-hour ambush on Interstate 55 -- seen by police as a retaliatory hit on a gangbanger marked for death by a rival gang.

The brazenness of such violence and the accompanying assumption that a cop is fair game simply because he's a cop on the street and doing his duty represents a radically changed dynamic of violence in this city. We are now in an era where the Way of the Gun is paramount and police are seen in the same light as gangbangers who invade a rival gang's turf and, in retaliation, start spraying bullets at anyone they see. The working assumption is that cops are yet another agile, mobile and hostile element, an invading army to be dealt with, gun on gun.

Perhaps the most galling example of this assumption is the September 27 acquittal of Jerome Johnson on charges of first-degree assault on a law-enforcement officer. In that case, jurors ignored conflicting testimony from police, who said Johnson shot at them, and Johnson, who insisted he didn't. What clearly overrode the jury's concern over who was telling the truth was the pretzel-logic assumption that Johnson couldn't be found guilty because he didn't know that the plainclothes officers trying to arrest him were police. This despite testimony from undercover officers who said they shouted out the obligatory identification -- "Police!" -- and were wearing raid jackets emblazoned with the same word fore and aft.

On the night of April 3, 2001, undercover officers were making arrests for drug sales in the 4300 block of Lee Avenue when shots from a passing car rang out. Police started chasing Johnson as a suspect and fired at him. He was struck seven times by police bullets. Cops say he fired at them first, a charge Johnson repeatedly denied. There's a lingering question, though: Is it righteous to fire at a suspect seven times while trying to apprehend him? The heat of battle isn't a sufficient excuse; judicious use of deadly force, even under the stress of a gun battle, is the key issue.

But not in the minds of jurors in the Johnson trial. In a stunning rebuke of police credibility, they set him free because police couldn't prove he knew they were cops. The unspoken corollary goes like this: If you don't know your pursuers are cops, it's more than OK to act as if they aren't and treat them as you would any member of a marauding rival gang.

Mokwa says the spree of shots thrown at cops is the direct result of the cops' targeting some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods and routinely questioning and arresting bad guys with a history of gun violence, drug sales and gang activity. As proof, he points to the 380 illegal weapons police have seized from suspects in the past six months.

"I'm asking officers to go out at two or three in the morning and stop two or three males who we know have a history of carrying firearms," Mokwa says. "I'm asking them to go after the bad guys.... Goddamn it, they don't just wave at you and say, 'Oh, I give up -- here's my gun.'"

Mokwa's also asking them to step into a free-fire zone not entirely of their making. There's rampant vigilantism on the streets of St. Louis, an eye-for-an-eye mentality that paints a bull's-eye on every combatant.

"If they're mad at a guy on your street, they'll shoot at anybody walking around," Mokwa says.

That's exactly the deadly dynamic that surrounded the Parker shooting. Rival gangs were gunning for each other, not caring whether a person did the offending deed or not, just as long as he sported the colors that mark him as a rival. In this case, the retaliation was sparked by the shooting of a rival gang leader's five-year-old.

The results cut both ways -- a dead teenager, a critically wounded cop. But these high-profile cases are masking a downward trend in homicides. There were 148 murders in 2001; at this time last year, there had been 120. The city now has 97 homicides on file. Also lost in this murderous shuffle is this grisly truth: Of the city's 148 homicide victims in 2001, 128 were black.

That leads Elam King, a counselor who specializes in gang violence and crime-plagued communities, to ask whether the right questions are being asked -- of police and of the community at large.

"It's not so much a cop rolling up in an unmarked car but anybody rolling up," King says. "Don't nobody know who's who. Everybody thinks it's somebody getting set to pull a drive-by. But nobody's asking the question I'm asking: Why are our young men arming themselves and walking around like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday?"

Shirley Emerson, a neighborhood activist in the O'Fallon Park area, where Parker was shot and killed, recognizes that increased conflict between cops and gangbangers may be the heavy price her neighborhood has to pay for decades of neglected criminality.

"Folks are living in terror up here. It's like living in a prison. You're afraid to go out of your house," Emerson says. "Folks are sleeping on the floor, afraid they might get hit by a stray bullet. They're so afraid, and the guys know it."

This doesn't let police off the hook with regard to the issue of proper firearms training. Nationwide, cops are notorious for pumping out more rounds than suspects do, and there's been a long-standing call for police to augment their mandatory qualification shoots with more realistic combat training, gun experts say. As it stands now, police get more of an exercise in target practice than they do defensive handgun tactics.

But Mokwa is looking to change that equation. The police force now has a $100,000 handgun-combat simulator, and he's running each of his 1,100 uniformed officers through the program as fast as he can. Cops are also taking another look at nonlethal weapons, such as electric stun guns and beanbag riot guns.

"Obviously we're not going to go into a gunfight with a beanbag, but we're looking at ways to lessen the chances of conflict," he says.

Good thing. It's open season out there.

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