Dirty Little Secrets

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department keeps a tight lid on internal affairs. Even if it means breaking the law.

The way Jason Cole tells it, a friend had just picked him up to go buy a pair of Air Force Ones. Cole didn't know the car had been reported stolen. When St. Louis police tried stopping the young men near a strip mall at the intersection of Delmar and Union boulevards on February 4, 2003, Cole bailed out and ran while his buddy sped off. The seventeen-year-old says he was scared -- he'd been injured in a crash a year earlier when a car he was riding in was chased by police who were looking for robbers, and he wasn't eager to face the cops again.

Whatever his past experiences with the law, Cole wasn't fleeing when the police caught up with him at the strip mall.

It was 3:30 p.m., the middle of what had been a routine day for Ryan Wilson, a mechanic at Boss Express Lube next to the mall. In a written statement prepared less than 24 hours later, Wilson stated that he saw a police cruiser park next to the repair shop while another officer approached on foot. Police ran toward Cole, he recalls, but there wasn't any need. "He didn't look like he was up to anything," Wilson says today.

Photoillustration by Tom Carlson, photography by J
Jason Cole lost a tooth in his encounter with St. Louis police. Witnesses to the incident say the teen wasn't resisting officers.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jason Cole lost a tooth in his encounter with St. Louis police. Witnesses to the incident say the teen wasn't resisting officers.

In a statement written shortly after the incident, Donald Logan, one of Wilson's co-workers, confirmed Wilson's account. "The man stood there while the officers ran to him," Logan wrote. "He was facing the officers and saw them coming."

Carolyn Martini, a jobs trainer at an employment agency called Productive Futures, was about twenty feet away, watching the scene unfold through her office window. By this time, several police cars had arrived. Martini believes Cole was trying to blend in with people standing outside.

"There were people everywhere," Martini recalls. "I remember my students wanted to go outside. I told them to stay here. He was not going anywhere -- I want to make that very clear. He was not trying to get away."

Nor was Cole threatening anyone, Martini asserted in the statement she prepared a day afterward. "The black male was not resisting at all and had both hands in full view," she wrote. "I saw nothing in either of his hands."

"They took me to the ground and handcuffed me," recalls Cole, who stood five-foot-eight and weighed 130 pounds at the time, according to court records. "An officer had me pinned down with his knee. Another officer grabbed me by the hair, pulled my head up, then hit my face against the ground." The impact knocked out one tooth and drove another into his upper gum, leaving Cole bleeding and screaming in pain. He was driven away in a patrol car, but he says the officers soon stopped and summoned an ambulance. "The officer said, 'If you get any blood on me, it will be worse than it already is,'" Cole remembers.

After being X-rayed and treated at Children's Hospital, Cole was taken to the police station, where he was locked up for a few hours, then released. Charges of cocaine possession and resisting police are pending.

Bystanders agree Cole didn't provoke officers. In his written statement, Wilson said an officer hoisted Cole off the ground by his pants and shirt and threw him to the pavement, where he was surrounded by officers who held him down. Then an officer slammed Cole's face into the sidewalk, Wilson says. Earnestine Evon Underwood, who was working at Productive Futures, recalled the same thing in her written statement. "While one officer had the young man pinned to the ground by placing his foot on the young man's back, another officer slammed the young man's head, face first, into the concrete," she wrote. "The young man was offering no resistance to the officers."

"It was wrong," Wilson says today. "I guess they were just getting their rocks off. I went up and asked them, 'Why'd you do him like that?' One of the officers said, 'That's what happens when you run from the police.'"

In a written statement Cole gave police, he said he was injured when he tripped while being arrested. He also admitted he was carrying crack cocaine, which he claimed he was holding for a friend.

His lawyer, Richard Sindel, dismisses Cole's statement, arguing that it was made under duress.

"Here's a seventeen-year-old kid who's in the custody of police who'd just knocked the crap out of him [and are] saying, 'Here, say this,'" asserts Sindel, who says he may file a civil lawsuit on Cole's behalf once the criminal case is dispensed with. "He had gone approximately five or six blocks from the area where he'd gotten out of the car. It's pretty inconceivable to me that if that were the case, he didn't throw the cocaine away."

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says her staff and the U.S. Attorney's Office looked into the circumstances surrounding Cole's arrest and concluded no charges should be pursued against police. Citing the pending charges against Cole, she declined to provide further details. Through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney Ray Gruender declined comment for this story.

Next Page »