A Police Killing in St. Louis Remains Shrouded in Darkness

click to enlarge The Bufford family poses for a portrait at their home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
The Bufford family poses for a portrait at their home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis.

First published by The Intercept, in partnership with the Invisible Institute.

“They got him in the darkness.” This is the poetry of trauma parents like Antoine and Tammy Bufford have learned to speak. They are describing how their son was gunned down in the narrow gangway between a red-brick cottage and a weathered farmhouse in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis on December 12, 2019.

“He waited until Cortez got in the darkness,” Antoine Bufford said. “You couldn’t see nothing there. Nothing.”

The 4-foot-9-inch space between 535 and 533 Bates Avenue is remarkably dark. Like a black hole, or a tunnel with no light at the end of it, the narrow grassy space runs about 32 feet before it dead-ends into a wood fence. That is where 24-year-old Cortez Bufford, chased by a man with a gun, couldn’t run any farther on that Thursday night around 9:30 p.m.

Eight shots were fired. Five, possibly six, of them hit Bufford’s body, front and back, from his left fingertip to the right thigh and upper back. Three shots to his face and head, one in each cheek, and the fatal shot to the upper left forehead.

“It was like he was target practice,” his father recalled thinking, as he looked over his son’s body at the family’s funeral home to “see everything that they had did to him.”

Wearing a yellow Missouri Tigers T-shirt, Bufford had been out that night with a good friend from his neighborhood, Terell Phillips. “Just a regular day,” Phillips said. “We was just chilling.”

In the course of the evening, they stopped at a BP gas station in the rental car his friend was driving for gas, a juice drink, and cigarettes.

The BP sits across the street from a vacant lot, close to the Mississippi River, right by a highway overpass. Threatened with closure by the city, it had been hanging on two years after being hit with a public nuisance notice for its high number of 911 calls, more than 800 calls for service in the last five years alone. Just two nights before Bufford’s death, a 14-year-old boy had been shot there multiple times during an argument.

When danger came, Bufford was standing behind the store, perhaps to smoke a cigarette away from flammables. He wouldn’t have wanted to stink up his friend’s nice rental car, his mother Tammy Bufford speculated. Or maybe he was taking a leak, as reports suggest, though no evidence of public urination was found.

click to enlarge The BP gas station on Bates Avenue, seen on May 17, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
The BP gas station on Bates Avenue, seen on May 17, 2021, in St. Louis.

“Hey man, stop pissing in public,” said a man in a white Chevy Tahoe. He was riding with another man. They pulled up alongside Bufford, according to reports. “Put your junk away.”

Bufford grinned and adjusted his gray sweatpants, but when one of the men opened the door of the Tahoe to approach him, his eyes widened and fear spread across his face, according to a video statement by one of the men.

That’s when Bufford fled.

Within seconds, the man chasing him pulled out a gun, video outside the gas station shows. Bufford, running for his life, collided at one point with the Tahoe driven by the other man. Bufford fell to the ground.

“They hit him with the truck. He got up and kept running,” Phillips said.

Bufford ran in between two homes on Bates but couldn’t clear the fence. He scuffled with the man who was after him, scratching him in the process, and broke free again. He ran across the street into another gangway until, unable to jump the fence, he couldn’t run anymore.

“I heard the first shot. It was a pause,” Phillips said in an interview. “Then after that, it was like Boom! Pause. Then it was boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom ... they just killed him.”

The medical examiner who performed Bufford’s autopsy ruled the manner of his death a homicide. That’s what forensic pathologists write, as a matter of course, when one human being dies at the hands of another human being. That part is no mystery. Bufford’s shooter has always been known to police. Because he is the police. Or, as reports refer to him, Officer #1.

In those reports, Bufford is “the suspect,” and what began as a “pedestrian check” swiftly turned deadly.

Two people, a white police officer and a Black man, each carrying a strong internal narrative about the other, are both reportedly, and legally, carrying guns.

They both carry something else, too: trauma.

In the blackness of the gangway, their fears collide. As space and focus narrow, it is hard to discern who, exactly, is in control of their actions anymore and who is captive of a neurological train of events with lethal momentum — an incident mired in political and sociological implications, where perspective dictates who plays the roles of the victim and the offender.

Law enforcement officers like Officer #1 are taught to preempt. To shoot first. To make it out alive in a society flooded with guns. In the close space between the two houses, there was no cover for either of them.

“They call it the old fatal tunnel, basically,” Officer #1 said in a video interview with force investigators about a month after the shooting. He fidgeted his fingers, as though uncomfortable about what he had just said. Experts in close-quarter combat often refer to such situations as the "fatal funnel."

What happened in the gangway was also a kind of perceptual tunnel. Despite the implausibility of Officer #1’s ability to see within this space, his “tunnel vision” certainly took over, distorting reality by making him believe that Bufford was shooting at him, he would later claim. And within our current mode of aggressive policing, this space between perception and reality can produce, and will continue to produce, tragic, absurd — and avoidable — outcomes.

“How do you fear for your life if he's running away from you?” Tammy Bufford, Cortez’s mother, asks. “At what point was there a threat? At what point was there a threat?”

click to enlarge An urn containing the remains of Cortez Bufford is seen at the home of Antoine and Tammy Bufford on May 15, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
An urn containing the remains of Cortez Bufford is seen at the home of Antoine and Tammy Bufford on May 15, 2021, in St. Louis.

Your Son Was Murdered

For a year and a half, the Bufford case has been suspended in the purgatory of unresolved police shooting cases. No charges filed. No determination made. Left in darkness, in a city with the highest rate of police killings in the country.

“That police officer needs to go to jail,” said Tammy Bufford. “You took an oath to protect and serve the community. You did not take an oath to be judge, jury, and executioner.”

Many fatal police shooting investigations around the country can take years to conclude, but the Bufford case is joined by more than 20 others in St. Louis — including seven in 2019 alone, Bufford’s among them — that have yet to receive a determination on filing criminal charges from Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner or, as the Riverfront Times and The Trace reported earlier this year, a review of any kind from the Civilian Oversight Board.

This inaction comes nearly seven years after a system was established to probe these cases, following the killings of Michael Brown by nearby Ferguson police and Kajieme Powell and VonDerritt Myers Jr. by St. Louis police. A byproduct of this flurry of reforms is a convoluted process, in which added layers of review can leave a case to crumble in the pipeline of investigations.

In 2014, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department created the Force Investigation Unit, or FIU, tasked with focusing solely on criminal investigations of police shootings. (Previously, there was just a review by Internal Affairs for policy violations.) Shortly thereafter, the Circuit Attorney’s Office entered into an agreement with the police department to review these investigations for criminal charges. After a ruling, the cases are supposed to head back to Internal Affairs and another internal board for policy and training review and, finally, to the police chief. Then, and only then, can the Civilian Oversight Board, established as the third prong of review for police shootings in 2015, receive the investigation.

This stands in contrast to how police shootings are investigated in many other large cities, as well as best practices from organizations like the Police Executive Research Forum, which recommends that the administrative and criminal reviews of shootings happen simultaneously.

“If you ask one entity, they’ll say it’s the other entity,” said Civilian Oversight Board Commissioner Kimberley Taylor-Riley, who reports that she has yet to receive a single police shooting case, not even shootings that are unquestionably closed.

This bureaucratic limbo is compounded by the fact that the Deadly Force Review Board, which reviews cases before they go to the oversight board, has not been convened in over two years. A new report released by Taylor-Riley this month points to Gardner’s office as the bottleneck.

Since taking office in 2017, Gardner has charged officers in at least three shootings: a nonfatal case from 2018 in which an officer shot an unarmed carjacking suspect in the back, a nonfatal 2019 case in which off-duty officers got into an altercation with a man at a bar, and another 2019 shooting in which an officer killed another officer in a game of Russian roulette.

“I don’t believe police can investigate themselves, and I have prosecuted police officers during my tenure and will hold them accountable just like anyone else,” Gardner said while campaigning for reelection in 2020. Otherwise put, as she told the Missouri Independent and Reveal, she cannot rely on investigations conducted by an officer’s “friends.”

Yet Gardner’s reluctance to make determinations in cases brings the investigative process to a standstill. Most cases remain indefinitely open when charges are not brought against an officer. This results in a backlog of cases. Despite there being an attorney and investigator within Gardner’s office to review these cases, there is no timeline to conclude them.

In a post-George Floyd reality (Bufford’s police killing preceded Floyd’s by five months), St. Louis elected Mayor Tishaura Jones, a progressive figure who quickly issued an executive order directing the SLMPD to share years of Internal Affairs data and other records with the oversight board. But ensuring civilian review of fatal police shootings, which activists have been calling for since the 1980s, may not be so simple. New legislation to streamline the review process would need to be passed by the Board of Aldermen. Despite a swing to the left, the board is still led by Lewis Reed, who has been criticized for proposing “stunt” police reforms that have done little to enact structural change. (Recently released records show that Gardner is facing state Supreme Court disciplinary proceedings for her handling of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’s criminal investigation.)

And so the vast majority of these cases, like Bufford’s, remain in the dark, unable to move forward.

Tammy Bufford and Antoine Bufford pose for a portrait at their home on May 15, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
Tammy Bufford and Antoine Bufford pose for a portrait at their home on May 15, 2021, in St. Louis.

“We look at the news, and it’s constantly still happening to young Black kids and brown kids,” said Antoine Bufford, who protests with family members in marches for Black lives. “It’s just not going to stop.”

With the city silent on the Bufford case, police investigators have not reached out to the family with updates. Not since they were first called in.

That’s when they sat across from Lt. John Green, the commander of the FIU, a veteran homicide investigator. They remember the lieutenant telling them something rather peculiar for someone in his position, something that would constitute a rupture in the code of silence: Your son was murdered.

“I don’t know if he would agree with it again, but he said it,” Antoine Bufford insisted in an interview for this story last December, on the anniversary of his son’s death. Tammy Bufford, who was present during the police meeting, heard the same thing.

In fact, today, Green does not agree with it. He denies making the utterance at all: “I didn’t say that their son was murdered. I said he was killed. I said he was shot. … No, I don’t know where they got that from.”

Green declined to address any specific questions about the Bufford case, deferring to Gardner: “It’s her shop. She can do whatever she wants to do. … We’re not going to surpass her. That’s not good business.”

But, Green mentioned, he has inquired about the status of the Bufford case since delivering his findings to Gardner’s office.

“We’ve asked several times,” he said. “The ball is in her court. I can’t push her to do anything. She doesn’t work for the police department. She’s an elected official. We just have to wait.”

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