Don Re Can't Fix St. Louis' Policing Problems. But He's Trying to Teach the Officers Who Will 

click to enlarge Don Re

PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Don Re

Officer Don Re took one look at his comrade's uniform and felt hope drown in his gut. There was too much blood. The blue fabric – the same as Re's uniform – was splashed red from shoulder to belly. A dark stain dripped beneath the silver badge of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Re wasn't thinking in that moment of the officer's health. Despite the bloodstains, he would be fine, at least physically.

But there was a six-year-old boy on the hospital gurney, a badly wounded child who up until now had been resting in the officer's arms – that was a different story. That was the boy's blood.

The date was March 11, 2015. Gunfire had blasted out earlier that night following a seemingly minor argument between the little boy's father and an unidentified motorist near O'Fallon Park. Somehow, a disagreement about blocked traffic escalated to a rolling gun battle that sprayed bullets across blocks of West Florissant Avenue. One of those bullets found the small chest of the boy, Marcus Johnson, tucked away in the backseat of his parents' minivan.

The crime scene was a few blocks away from Re's regular patrol beat in north St. Louis, and after responding to the shooting he led a convoy of police vehicles clearing traffic in a desperate attempt to deliver the still-breathing child to the hospital.

A team of doctors and nurses took little Marcus, and Re and the other officers could only pace about the waiting room. Lost in worry, Re found himself staring at the officer's bloodied uniform. He thought about his own son, also six, who was probably asleep at home by now. Carefully, Re pulled out his phone and snapped a single picture.

It wasn't long before the doctors returned and told the assembled officers the news. Marcus Johnson was dead.

Re left the hospital with a head full of rage. After more than seventeen years as a city cop, he'd seen petty arguments turn into gun battles before, and he'd worked the Sixth District of north city long enough to witness the worst kinds of human wreckage – but this was something else. A little kid is bleeding out in a minivan? Really? Is that where we're at?

click to enlarge After a tragic night, Don Re snapped this photo of an officer's bloodied uniform. "This is what a good policeman looks like," he wrote on Facebook. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DON RE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF DON RE
  • After a tragic night, Don Re snapped this photo of an officer's bloodied uniform. "This is what a good policeman looks like," he wrote on Facebook.

Re, 42, managed to keep his cool through a few more dispatch calls, a stolen bike and a car accident. He finished the shift and got home after 11 p.m.

Then he grabbed some beers, opened his laptop and logged into his personal blog, Don of All Trades. He started to write. And write. He hit publish at 2:43 a.m.

The blog post, titled "A senseless death," described Re's rush to the hospital and the unnamed officer carrying Johnson to the emergency room. It also included Re's photo of the cop's bloody uniform.

"It was hard for the officer," Re wrote in the post, "because he did the best he could and it wasn't going to be enough. It was hard for me, because I have a son about that age at home and couldn't imagine anything like this happening to him. It was awkward because we were all hoping, but we also knew that it was going to take a miracle for that boy to live. He was not granted that miracle."

Perhaps the hardest part of that night was pretending to care about a stolen bike and car accident long enough to write the incident reports. He had wanted to scream, "At least you didn't die at six years old from a bullet through your chest!" But that wouldn't be professional.

It was the post's final, brutal lines that seemed reflect the emotions of a city exhausted by an endless churn of guns and death. Over the next few days, those lines would be read and shared by the chief of police, every TV news station in St. Louis and hundreds of thousands of people on social media.

"I'm looking at my own six year old's homework folder," Re wrote, "and wondering if this dead boy has a homework folder in a backpack never to be turned in again. Will his mom see it when she gets home and cry? Did he have a lunch packed for the next day that will still be in the fridge this weekend to remind his family of a lunch that was never taken to school? Did he go to kindergarten? Will somebody have to explain to his classmates that they'll never see this little guy alive again and why?"

Re concluded:

"This is all too sad and it needs to stop. Someone please figure out how."

Marcus Johnson's death marked St. Louis' 24th homicide of 2015, and the meaningless horror of the shooting drew further attention to the city's enduring struggle with violence. It was early March, barely three months into the year, and St. Louis was already on its way to recording its highest murder rate in decades. As in past years, most of the homicides were clustered in poor, majority black communities in the north.

Re spent more than a year patrolling those same hard-hit areas. Raised in south city, Re had spent his formative years playing in soccer tournaments and listening to his father's stories about breaking up bar fights as a St. Louis cop in the 1970s. In his father's telling, being a cop was all about camaraderie and excitement. The reality, as Re found, could be much different.

In writing about Johnson's final moments, Re didn't resort to "thin blue line" grandstanding or sound bites; he didn't blame the violence on absent fathers, rap lyrics or imply that a "thug culture" was corrupting young black men. He didn't say anything glib about all lives mattering. Re just sounded like a human being who was trying to understand why bad things happen to innocent people, and specifically why some asshole decided to shoot up a minivan for nothing.

The next morning, March 12, Re rolled out of bed at 7 a.m. to make his morning shift working security at an apartment complex. Around noon, he got an unexpected call from the St. Louis police's public information division.

Re later learned that Sam Dotson, the city's police chief, had read and enjoyed his blog post. Dotson even tweeted about it.

"I was half expecting them to say that you can't be writing stories about the police department," Re recalls. Instead, he was asked if the department could share his post on the official SLMPD Facebook page.

That request was followed by calls from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which reprinted the blog post in full, taking up an entire page in the next day's print edition. Local TV news stations took notice as well, followed by People. By day's end, Re says the post had been viewed more than 300,000 times.

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