By Ray Downs
By Ray Downs
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Lindsay Toler
By Jon Gitchoff
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
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.
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.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has a file on the alleged beating in its internal-affairs division. But the case didn't turn up when the Riverfront Times filed a public-records request six months ago for internal-affairs documents on cases dating back to April 1, 1997, involving officers suspected of criminal conduct.
In fact, not much turned up at all.
It took the department three full months to produce paperwork. First came one-page summaries of 40 complaints, all of them censored to obscure the names and badge numbers of accused officers. The department subsequently produced 28 more summaries, similarly redacted. Some of the summaries were incomplete, cut off in mid-sentence at the end of the first page, before narratives revealed the gist of alleged wrongdoing.
The department didn't hand over any investigative files detailing how complaints had been handled. In most cases, the records that were furnished did not even indicate whether the complaints had been sustained or disproven.
The police did, however, supply a bill. To cover 30-plus hours of staff time spent compiling the paperwork, the department sent along an invoice -- for $1,090.
During the past decade, and especially over the past five years, brutality complaints against St. Louis police have plummeted.
In the early and mid-1990s, the department received more than a hundred physical-abuse complaints annually and upheld four to six allegations each year. By 2002, however, the force had reached a ten-year low, with a mere 24 complaints of physical abuse, none of which were upheld.
St. Louis police last upheld a physical-abuse complaint in 2000, according to department statistics covering the years 1992 through 2002. During that decade, the department sustained nearly 3 percent of such complaints. But if the past four years are considered separately, the rate falls to less than one-half of 1 percent.
Complaints involving other types of officer misconduct are also dropping. Until 2000, department stats show between 587 and 826 internal-affairs complaints were handled each year, including allegations of theft, harassment, verbal abuse, conduct unbecoming an officer and violations of various department procedures. By 2002 the figure had fallen to 384.
Police aren't offering any explanations for the numbers. The department didn't respond to requests for interviews with officials knowledgeable about internal-affairs cases and procedures, nor did the department answer written questions submitted at the request of police spokesman Richard Wilkes.
Outside the department, experts say there could be several reasons behind the trend.
"It could mean either one of two completely opposite things," says Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska criminologist who has studied internal-affairs procedures with the help of grants from the U.S. Department of Justice. "Police behavior could, in fact, be improving. Or it could be that people are just discouraged by the complaint process and so don't bother. There's a long history of departments actually intimidating people from coming in and filing complaints. They just lie and bullshit them, say, 'You can't file a complaint here. No, we don't accept these complaints.'" One of the best-known examples, Walker notes, is Rodney King's brother, who was threatened with arrest when he tried to file a brutality complaint after the infamous videotaped beating in 1991.
Two years ago the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that internal-affairs files are public records when officers are suspected of criminal conduct. The court specifically stated that police departments cannot treat such files as personnel records, pre-empting a tactic that departments, including St. Louis, had often employed in denying access to internal-affairs records. When in doubt, the court said, err on the side of disclosure.
The justices weighed in after Kirkwood police officer Steve Guyer sued his employer, which refused to give him an internal-affairs file prepared after he was accused of drug trafficking and receiving sexual favors from prostitutes. The allegation, which was handled by St. Louis County police, proved false: An investigator who spoke with several witnesses, including the person believed to have filed the anonymous complaint, determined it was a case of neighborhood gossip. But the department claimed the files must be kept secret because they were personnel records, which are exempt from disclosure under the state's Sunshine Law.
With lawyers paid for by the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, Guyer sued, contending that the Sunshine Law required release of the records because the files constituted investigative documents -- the equivalent of police reports that are generated when a civilian is accused of a crime. The supreme court agreed in a ruling issued in March 2001.
The decision in Guyerv. Kirkwoodprompted Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon to alert law-enforcement agencies that internal-affairs files are subject to the Sunshine Law. In a bulletin issued shortly after the decision, the attorney general cautioned that the court had decided complaints are "always" public records in cases of alleged criminal conduct, and that the accompanying investigative files "may" be subject to disclosure. "The impact on police personnel records is significant," reads the dispatch from Nixon's office.
Since Guyer, several local departments, including St. Louis County, Kirkwood and University City, have released internal-affairs files in response to requests from the Riverfront Times. Besides the Guyer documents, the departments released files on former University City officer Anthony Hall, who was fired for suspected theft in 2001; and former county officer Thomas Zeigler, who got into a domestic dispute with his wife in 2002 and was later charged with shooting a fellow officer. No names were blacked out, and cases against the officers were spelled out in detail, as were the efforts made by investigators to find the truth.
St. Louis police claim the department has destroyed most of the investigative files the Riverfront Times requested. Citing records-retention guidelines published by the Missouri Secretary of State's Office, Michael Stelzer, counsel to Chief Joe Mokwa and the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, says the department destroys files after one year on claims that aren't proven and gets rid of files after five years on sustained complaints.
Lynn Morrow, director of the local-records preservation program in the Secretary of State's Office, says state guidelines for internal-affairs records were written within the past two years. "It wasn't scheduled previously," Morrow says. "We had some police clerks that asked us to put it in there." The guidelines, he adds, are the least that law-enforcement agencies are required to do: "These are minimum [rules]. There's nothing whatsoever to prohibit any official from keeping a record forever if they want to. And some of them do."
Regardless of whether complaints are sustained, destroying internal-affairs files isn't a good idea, says Walker, the University of Nebraska criminologist. Most internal-affairs complaints, particularly those that allege excessive force, aren't sustained owing to a lack of evidence and witnesses, Walker points out. But that doesn't mean the files aren't valuable tools that can be used to identify problem officers.
"I would keep them indefinitely," he says. "Does the Pentagon purge their records of officers? You want an officer's history. If you have an officer who suddenly gets a rash of complaints, that's worth knowing: Is this part of a long-term history, which suggests you've got a real serious problem, or is this something new?"
Even in cases where investigative files have not been destroyed, St. Louis police refused to turn over records. Stelzer cites a clause in the Sunshine Law that says arrest reports aren't public records if no charges are filed within 30 days. But the Riverfront Times did not ask for arrest reports, nor is there any indication that an officer was arrested in the vast majority of the 68 summaries the department did provide. Furthermore, the same section of the Sunshine Law that governs the release of arrest records also states that investigative files -- which are distinct from arrest records under state law -- become public once an investigation is over.
As for blacking out names and badge numbers in complaint summaries, Stelzer cites portions of the Sunshine Law that permit police to redact information if disclosure would jeopardize an investigation, reveal investigative techniques or endanger someone.
Only 29 of the 68 censored summaries provided to the Riverfront Times indicate whether complaints were upheld. Six of those complaints were sustained. But owing to redactions and the lack of investigative files, it's impossible to determine the nature of many charges.
One example is a 1997 case in which a suspected car thief complained that he was kicked, slapped and struck with a flashlight after members of the department's mobile reserve unit arrested him for stealing a Ford Mustang that belonged to a member of the unit. According to a summary dated August 12, 1998, the suspect complained to internal affairs four days after his arrest on October 29 of the previous year. An internal-affairs sergeant photographed his injuries, which included cuts on his head and abrasions on his shins. A week later the internal-affairs division turned over the case to the mobile reserve unit. The summary doesn't say why the investigation was assigned to a unit that included the accused officers. The document does show that four officers received written reprimands ten months after the initial complaint, but who they are and exactly what they did wrong isn't clear. Though the report is titled "Alleged Physical Abuse," the department's statistics show that no physical-abuse cases were sustained that year.
In another case, a 2001 complaint summary doesn't say whether the department sustained an allegation made by a man who accused an off-duty officer of brandishing a gun during a road-rage incident at the intersection of South Grand Boulevard and Humphrey Street. Besides writing down the officer's license-plate number, the complainant identified him from a photograph. As in every other summary provided to Riverfront Times, the department blacked out the officer's name and badge number and withheld the investigative files.
Only the police department knows precisely how many internal-affairs cases involve alleged assaults, thefts or other crimes. But state records, court files and the department's own statistics hint at the extent to which the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is keeping mum about officers who have been accused of breaking the law.
The department, which gave a mere 68 censored summaries to the Riverfront Times, handled 445 physical-abuse cases alone between 1997 and 2002. Noting the discrepancy in a January 5 letter to Stelzer, the newspaper asked why physical-abuse allegations hadn't been considered potential criminal matters and therefore subject to the Sunshine Law. To date, the newspaper has received no explanation.
At least five city officers had their state peace-officer licenses revoked by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission because they committed crimes during the time period covered by the newspaper's information request, but the department released complaint summaries in just two of these cases. The other three cases:
· Mark S. Hubbard, a narcotics officer who lost his license last year after he removed license tabs from a Jeep leased by the FBI and put them on his Nissan Maxima. Although there's no indication Hubbard was prosecuted, the state determined that his peace-officer license should be revoked because he committed a crime.
· Delores I. Cowan, who lost her license after she took a $300 money order from a suspect in 1997 and deposited it in her bank account. According to State Administrative Hearing Commission records, Cowan pleaded guilty to a crime (records don't state the charge) and received a suspended sentence.
· Francesco LoForte, who lost his license two years ago after he was accused of stealing from a burning car a gym bag that contained a handgun. LoForte wasn't prosecuted, but that didn't mean he wasn't guilty, the commission concluded. "The preponderance of the credible evidence shows that LoForte took the bag and its contents," wrote state administrative hearing commissioner Willard C. Reine.
Nor did the department provide any documents regarding Jeffrey Pierson, who resigned from the force in November 2002, a few days after security guards at Union Station said they'd caught him masturbating in his pickup truck. Pierson kept his state license because a surveillance videotape that showed him moving his hands around in his lap was too grainy for the commission to reach a definitive conclusion. Pierson explained that he was scratching a "terrible irritating male itch." He retained his state license, but he no longer works as a police officer in Missouri, according to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
The Riverfront Times asked Stelzer why the department failed to turn over documents on officers who'd been stripped of their state certification. He promised to address the matter. That was on December 23 of last year. The newspaper hasn't received an explanation.
State records aren't the only documents that chronicle conduct by officers whose identities and alleged crimes are shielded by the department. Seven people who claimed police brutality during the time period covered by the Riverfront Times'public-records request have sued in federal court and collected settlements totaling more than $370,000. In only one of those cases did the department supply a complaint summary.
The department released a censored summary in the case of Nancy Meyer, who collected $30,000 after she was beaten by Officer Christina Gonzalez during the 1999 Mardi Gras celebration in Soulard. Gonzalez, a probationary officer, eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge. Lieutenant Daniel G. Simpher recommended that she be dismissed from the force.
The department released no documents in six other brutality cases that resulted in lawsuits settled with taxpayer money. The biggest winner was Gregory Bell, a mentally handicapped man who was beaten by police in 1997 after he accidentally triggered a burglar alarm in his own home. Bell collected $250,000, but Stelzer says the department can't release any records about the incident because former Sergeant Thomas Moran was acquitted of assault charges in the case, and state law requires that records be sealed when defendants are acquitted of criminal charges.
In the other five cases, settlement amounts ranged from $8,000 to $25,000. According to court documents and plaintiffs' attorneys, the plaintiffs all complained to internal affairs before suing the police. None were convicted of crimes stemming from the incidents that sparked their lawsuits.
Crawford Miller, age 74, sued after officers in search of marijuana and drug profits broke down his door on March 6, 2000. Miller has driven a cab in St. Louis for 54 years and has never been charged with a crime, according to court records in St. Louis and St. Louis County. He was in bed recovering from radiation treatment for lung cancer when officers arrived. His first inkling of trouble came when he heard someone on his porch.
"They didn't knock," Miller recalls. "I didn't know they were the police -- they never said 'police officer' or nothing." He says the officers wore military-style fatigues instead of standard-issue uniforms and broke down his door just as he was opening it. "I'm looking in the barrel of a shotgun," he recounts. "I thought I was being robbed."
Miller says he ran from the doorway toward a shotgun he kept behind his bed. He was about twelve feet away from his gun when the officers caught him. "They threw me down on the floor," he remembers. "I was telling them that I had just had a cancer operation and I couldn't put my hands behind me -- I'd had half of my left lung removed. They told me they didn't give a damn what I'd had. They put their foot in my back and pulled my arms behind my back, broke three of my ribs and pulled my rotator cuff out of the socket, and put handcuffs on me. They went through everything in the house -- they even went through my garbage."
Police found neither drugs nor money, although court records show they seized the shotgun. Miller says police also took his prescribed Percocet and a bottle of expensive cologne.
After he telephoned the station to complain, a sergeant who'd taken his pain medication returned the call, Miller says. "I knew his voice. He told me, 'Ain't nobody taken your medicine.' They didn't do nothing. So the next day I got up and went down to internal affairs."
That didn't work either, Miller says. "They told me I would hear from them, and I never heard from them. When I didn't hear from them, I would call. They would say I had to come in. So I would go again."
Nearly four years after the raid, Miller hasn't heard the results of the internal-affairs investigation. "Nobody did nothing," he says. "Calling the police on the police does no good, because they don't go against each other."
According to the federal government, Miller and others who have complained to the St. Louis police department's internal-affairs division shouldn't have to wonder about the outcome of investigations.
In guidelines issued in 1999 and updated in 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice recommends that police departments release as much information as possible about internal-affairs cases. At a minimum, the guidelines say, departments should tell complainants whether their allegations were upheld or dismissed, and why.
"You have to tell people how their complaint was responded to," explains Daryl Borgquist, spokesman for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, which published the guidelines. "You can build trust between people when you have communication and things are open."
In the Jason Cole case, Cecilia Nadal, owner and president of Productive Futures, called internal affairs the same day the teenager was arrested. A year later, she's still waiting to hear the results of the probe.
"We were waiting for the legal system to work and hoping that it would," Nadal says. "And to this point, it hasn't. It's so clear to me that the culture of internal affairs is one of defensiveness and not objectivity."
Alderman Terry Kennedy, whose ward includes the strip mall where Cole was arrested, says he made sure police were aware that he wanted to be notified of the investigation's outcome. He says he last inquired about the case in late summer, but he hasn't heard anything back.
South-side resident Tom Hallaran says police haven't told him anything about an internal-affairs complaint he lodged after his home on Illinois Avenue was raided shortly before the World Agricultural Forum last spring. Police seized computer equipment, papers, climbing gear, welding tools and assorted other belongings. "'Instruments of crime that could be used in protest situations' -- that's what it said on the warrant," says Hallaran.
Hallaran says he's still missing about $600 worth of computer equipment and climbing gear. Occupants of a nearby home that was also raided say tires were slashed while bicycles were in police custody and that their belongings reeked of urine when they were allowed back into the building several days after the raids.
Hallaran recalls that he spoke twice with internal-affairs investigators, once within a week of the raid and again in June, after Chief Mokwa ordered an investigation to determine whether officers had damaged property. That, Hallaran says, was his last contact with police. "They haven't followed up with us at all. They haven't brought any charges, but we still haven't received a lot of our stuff back and we don't know the status of what they're doing."
The department refused to supply internal-affairs files on the raids to the Riverfront Times, claiming they're not public records because urinating on personal belongings and slashing bicycle tires aren't crimes that would trigger disclosure under the Guyer ruling. Notwithstanding a state law that defines destruction of property as a criminal offense, department counsel Michael Stelzer argued that any wrongdoing by officers during the raids would be a civil matter. (For more about this issue and incidents surrounding the World Agricultural Forum, see "Legal Loopholes" in the August 13, 2003, issue of Riverfront Times.)
Federal court files in brutality cases show that the St. Louis police department fights hard when asked for internal-affairs records. In at least two cases, the department has hired the high-powered law firm Lewis, Rice & Fingersh -- which unsuccessfully defended Kirkwood in the Guyer case -- to quash demands for internal-affairs files. In both instances, federal judges denied pleas to keep police records secret.
In one of those cases, attorney Thomas Casey got a court order compelling the department to produce an internal-affairs file on an alleged September 1998 pistol-whipping of his client, Matthew Quinlisk, who was driven away in an ambulance after his encounter with police. Although Casey believes his client was assaulted, the department provided no documents on the case in response to the Riverfront Times'request for records.
Officer Daniel Earley was off-duty and talking to a woman outside a Lafayette Square bar when Quinlisk made a "smart-ass comment of some kind, to the effect that 'That's a mighty fine-looking woman you got there,'" Casey recalls.
"Earley turns to him and says, 'What did you say?'" says Casey. "Earley walks up to Quinlisk. As he's approaching, he takes out his 9mm Beretta, then slaps Quinlisk on the head with the butt of the gun -- I think it was several blows. Quinlisk goes down to the ground, and he's out. He was hurt pretty goddamn bad."
Although Quinlisk was arrested for assault, prosecutors dismissed the charges. Internal affairs dismissed Quinlisk's allegation along with the other 96 physical-abuse complaints the division handled that year. But Quinlisk collected $17,526 to settle his federal lawsuit.
"It was whitewashed," Casey says today. "Those internal-affairs files -- they're so sanitized, it's not funny. We tried showing a cover-up. We were not very successful in that regard. We had trouble finding cops who would come in against Earley. We did have the corroborating testimony of the people who Matt Quinlisk was with, and I thought they were pretty believable."
It's not unusual for the police department to pay plaintiffs even when internal affairs doesn't sustain complaints, Casey says. "They will always cough up the money, and they'll settle the case, but not for a great deal of money," he says. "Of course, the problem with these cases is, more often than not, you're dealing with less than the cream of society. The people the cops beat up tend to be shit bums. That doesn't mean they deserve to get beat up, but nevertheless, they don't have a whole lot of jury appeal."
Gregory Bell, who was beaten by police officers in his own home, demanded more than money to settle his brutality lawsuit. In addition to giving Bell $250,000, police in 1998 agreed to revise their internal-affairs procedures to make it easier for victims to come forward and to reduce the chances of officers intimidating complainants or not accurately recording allegations.
Before the Bell settlement, citizens had to travel downtown to lodge complaints at police headquarters, and they weren't allowed to keep a copy of their statements. To settle Bell's case, the department signed a consent decree, agreeing to keep complaint forms at patrol stations and to instruct officers to give them to anyone who asked. The department was also supposed to issue a press release about the changes.
But it wasn't until the spring of 1999, when Bell's attorneys asked U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Weber to enforce the consent decree, that the department finally put out a bulletin informing officers that complaint forms should be kept at precincts. The promised press release came months later, on the day before Thanksgiving.
Some say nothing has changed.
Scott Addison, a friend of World Agricultural Forum protesters who were arrested last spring, says police at the South Patrol subdivision didn't seem familiar with the revised procedure when he asked for a complaint form. "They had me standing there for about an hour," Addison remembers. "A cop finally shows up with this crumpled-up, stepped-on piece of paper. 'This is all we have,' he said."
In the Jason Cole case, Cecilia Nadal says the internal-affairs sergeant who answered the phone when she called wasn't interested in gathering evidence while blood and memories were fresh. "He said, 'You cannot make a complaint unless you come down here,'" Nadal recalls. "He said, 'As far as we're concerned, there is not a victim.' It was obvious they were trying to get me off this, to leave it alone."
Nadal had arrived a few minutes after the action but spoke with several witnesses, some of whom recalled seeing Cole's face slammed into the sidewalk and others who only heard the "thump" of his body hitting the ground. "There's no question they used brutality," Nadal insists. "You saw blood all over the place, and you saw all these people crying. I've never been in a situation where I saw so many people upset -- black, white and other cultures. They couldn't believe what had happened."
Nadal called Alderman Kennedy, who besides representing the ward where her business is located is also sponsoring an aldermanic bill to establish a civilian board that would hear complaints against police. Kennedy says dealing with internal affairs in the case was "not a friendly process." By the time he got involved, Kennedy says, he "was really doing some damage control in trying to get the police to recognize this was a serious issue."
Nadal's staff posted a sign on Productive Futures' door urging witnesses to step forward. After Kennedy called police, Captain Reggie Harris of the internal-affairs division met with the staff at Productive Futures. He didn't like the sign, Nadal recalls.
"He was pissed when he saw that," Nadal says. "He said, 'When we come to help with break-ins, nobody says anything. But when something like this happens, you put up signs.' I could not believe he was the head of the department. When that kind of comment comes from a top person, that's indicative of a culture that's been there for some time."
In October, Harris was promoted to major. At the same time, the Board of Police Commissioners promoted Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Pollihan, commander of the department's Bureau of Professional Responsibility, which includes internal affairs. Pollihan is now an assistant chief, just one step below the department's top post.
Stelzer, the attorney who responded to the Riverfront Times' records requests, was tapped as an associate circuit judge on January 12 by Governor Bob Holden.
Steve Guyer, the Kirkwood officer whose lawsuit prompted the Missouri Supreme Court to rule that internal-affairs files are subject to the Sunshine Law, didn't respond to an interview request for this story. But Thomas Mayer, president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police and a sergeant with the St. Charles Police Department, acknowledges the irony of a police officer suing to have internal-affairs reports declared public records.
Bringing the case to the supreme court, Mayer says, came with the risk of airing laundry that many officers would prefer remain hidden.
"The potential for abuse of that decision is rampant," Mayer asserts. "It could really, really turn things upside down. The reason we went forward is, any employee -- not just in a police department -- should have access to his own file. The FOP's role in that was simply protecting the cop's rights."
Mayer says officers who are the subject of complaints should be publicly named only if they're actually charged with crimes. There's a difference, he believes, between handing over an internal-affairs file to an accused police officer and giving files to anyone who asks.
"Wrong," counters Jean Maneke, First Amendment attorney for the Missouri Press Association, which lobbies the state legislature on behalf of the media. "Who requests the information has nothing to do with anything."
Nor does the outcome of the investigation. The court ruled that the Guyerfile is a public document even though allegations proved unfounded. Maneke also notes that police aren't supposed to withhold entire investigative files when officers are accused of crimes. While state law allows some information to be redacted if it would reveal investigative techniques or pose a "clear and present danger" to an officer, witness or victim, that's a far cry from wholesale refusal to produce files, says Maneke. "The exception [to the Sunshine Law] doesn't talk about withholding the whole record," she notes. "It talks about withholding portions of the record."
Like the state attorney general, Greg Kloeppel, the lawyer retained by the Fraternal Order of Police to argue Guyer's case, says internal-affairs complaints alleging possible criminal conduct are always public records. Accompanying investigative files are also subject to disclosure, he says, with the caveat that information posing a danger to a person or an investigation can be excised. And that's not likely once an investigation has been completed, Kloeppel argued in the Guyer case.
The Guyer decision notwithstanding, local civil-rights attorneys and activists say "trust us" has always been the St. Louis police department's watchword when its officers are accused of wrongdoing.
"I have a difficult time securing these types of reports, even in the context of litigation," says Stephen Ryals, a Clayton lawyer who represented Gregory Bell and who has handled several other police-brutality lawsuits filed in federal court. "I think it's important in a free society that these sorts of matters be aired in a public forum, in the public eye. If it's all done in secrecy, behind closed doors where nothing that they do is subject to open review, it at least creates an atmosphere of possible suspicion and mistrust."
Jamala Rogers, co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, says internal-affairs secrecy is one reason her group is calling for a civilian oversight board to hear complaints against police.
"When police officers appear to commit crimes, they shouldn't be treated differently than any other suspect, but they are," Rogers says. "We need to have some measures of accountability, and the only way to do that is to have the information."
Although the Guyer decision opened a door that had previously been closed, members of the media in St. Louis have shown little interest in stepping through it. St. Louis police say they've received just five requests for internal-affairs files since the Guyer decision. All five came from the Riverfront Times.
"Isn't that strange, that a city police department of this size has only had one entity asking for information," Rogers observes. "Either they're lying or, worse, people have stopped asking."
Richard Weil, an assistant managing editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says the paper has asked St. Louis police for at least two internal-affairs files since the Guyerdecision. On the first occasion, in 2001, the paper asked for files involving Maurice Nutt, a police board member who resigned after he was accused of sexually harassing officers. Weil says the paper got the information it wanted through other means and didn't follow up on its Sunshine Law request. "We kind of let it slide," he says. The second request, made about a month ago, is pending, Weil says. State law requires public agencies to respond to such requests within three days. In extraordinary cases, the law says agencies may go beyond the three-day limit, but there must be "reasonable cause" for the delay, which must be explained in detail to the person requesting the record.
Although police departments have historically been insular institutions, Chief Joe Mokwa doesn't duck controversy and knows the importance of public-records laws, remembers Eddie Roth, a former police board commissioner who left St. Louis two years ago to take a job as an editorial writer with the Dayton Daily News in Ohio.
"It's a constant struggle to have the doors and windows opened as widely as you'd like them to be," says Roth, a licensed attorney who is familiar with the Guyerdecision. "I think Chief Mokwa is a very open guy who does understand the obvious public interest in this material."
But Roth was surprised to learn that the department won't release names of officers even in physical-abuse complaints that have been sustained. "Gee whiz," Roth exclaimed. "Who are you dealing with over there? Maybe I can help. Let me make some calls."
Like Roth, Atkins W. Warren, who was in charge of the department's internal-affairs division from 1972 until 1980, recommended speaking directly with Mokwa. Warren left the department in 1980 to become chief of police in Gainesville, Florida, then moved on to the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service office in Kansas City. Since 2002 he has worked as a race-relations consultant. He knows about the Guyerdecision, but he says explaining the department's refusal to release records is a job for the chief.
"Let him know you talked to me -- we're friends," Warren suggests. "He's a real straight guy. He's the boss. Then you bypass the people in the middle who hinder what you're trying to obtain. He'll share with you what you're looking for. He'll give you the reasons why they can or can't do certain things."
Mokwa did not return two phone calls requesting comment for this story.