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In the wee hours of a Monday morning last month, Easton Romer was driving his Pontiac Transport minivan west on Page Avenue when an Overland police officer began to follow him. Romer, the owner of the De Palm Tree restaurant on Olive Boulevard in University City, had been out enjoying his first night off in weeks with friends in the Delmar Loop.
"He would ride up on the back of the van and ease back, ride up on the back of the van and ease back, like he was pushing me," recalls Romer, a 38-year-old Jamaican man with long black dreadlocks. "I was watching my speed."
The police officer stopped Romer at Woodson and Lackland roads. Before his arrest, Romer claims, three officers piled on him and one struck him in the jaw. For his trouble, the Overland resident received citations for speeding, lacking proof of insurance, resisting arrest and failure to comply with police orders. He is due to appear September 19 in Overland Municipal Court.
Romer says he had an ominous feeling as soon as he was pulled over because two more police cars pulled in behind the first. Still, he adds, "I didn't think it would come to this."
Recalling the incident, Romer says the same officer who followed him approached his van. Romer says his driver's side window was not working well, "so I opened the door to talk to him [and] he saw a little baggie in the door." When asked about its contents, Romer told the officer it was sausage and eggs, one of his son's favorite meals. After finishing the breakfast, his son typically hands Romer the crumb-filled baggie, which he then shoves in the door pocket.
Romer says the officer gave him a sobriety test, which he says he passed "because I wasn't having anything to drink, really." Then, Romer says, the officer wanted to search the van. When he asked why, the officer said he wanted to see what was in the baggie. That's when Romer says he reached over to the pocket of the open door, squeezed the top of the baggie between his index and middle finger, and lifted it over his head to show the three officers.
"All three of them jumped on me, pulled me in the street," Romer claims.
"I'm yelling, 'You guys don't have to do that.' Then I feel a hit on my cheek."
A couple of days after the July 23 arrest, Romer retained Clayton criminal defense attorney Stephanie Howlett, who regularly dines at De Palm Tree. Romer has also filed a complaint with Captain Richard Brown, the Overland police officer in charge of internal affairs.
In addition to defending Romer on the misdemeanor criminal charges, Howlett says she will help him pursue a formal complaint with the police department, though she declined to elaborate on its nature.
Romer's dustup with Overland police is not the first time the department has weathered allegations of questionable behavior on the part of its officers. On July 3, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown Jr. reported that Overland and St. Louis County police stopped an African-American woman from Chesterfield.
According to Brown's account, police told Anisha Coleman that the white SUV she was driving matched the description of an automobile from which shots were fired that night. Coleman later learned that the vehicle Overland police should have been looking for was a white car, notan SUV. This was after she had been forced to crawl on the ground while police trained their weapons on her, and her seven-year-old son and two teenage cousins sat in the SUV.
Additionally, Overland police are still living down the notoriety over the death of Esteban Dominguez Silva, a 30-year-old Mexican immigrant who died in the summer of 2003 after falling ill in the Overland jail. Overland police arrested Silva June 20, 2003, on outstanding warrants related to traffic violations. Paramedics treated Silva on two separate occasions while he was in the Overland jail.
Silva died June 28, 2003, at the Audrain Medical Center in Mexico, Missouri, several days after he'd been placed in a federal immigration holding facility. The Overland Police Department, along with the U.S. government, was named in a wrongful death suit that Silva's wife, Maria Carmen Alvarado, filed in September 2003 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Overland police maintained Silva's symptoms never warranted a higher level of treatment. Silva's family reached a settlement and received $250,000 in February 2006.
Overland police, meanwhile, will not say why the officer followed and pulled over Easton Romer last month, nor will the department release the incident report. Through a clerk, chief James Herron declined to respond to repeated attempts to reach him.
Herron also offered no comment about Romer's case to Fox 2 News, other than to say he welcomes any complaints about officer conduct. "I would not tolerate any of my officers enforcing the law based on race, or sex, or religious preference," he told the station.
Romer, whose story reached Riverfront Times through one of his restaurant's patrons, says he still doesn't understand what he did wrong. Nor do his friends.
"He was really distraught," says Jim Irwin, a Kirkwood veterinarian who eats at the restaurant weekly. Irwin says Romer called him several days after his arrest, seeking comfort and advice. "He said, 'Do you think I'm becoming violent?' If you know Easton, he's just a sweetheart."