'Riot King' Brian Rossomanno Has Become the Police Department's Protest Hammer

A hatless Brian Rossomanno watches protesters in the Central West End on September 15, 2017.
A hatless Brian Rossomanno watches protesters in the Central West End on September 15, 2017. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

St. Louis police Sergeant Brian Rossomanno is known as an expert tactician, but tonight he has been outflanked. The cop nicknamed "Riot King" is surrounded — kettled, you might say — by a group of protesters bearing down on his SUV.

"Who do you protect?" the protesters shout in unison. "Who do you serve?"

It is just after dark, about 8 p.m. on September 28. Rossomanno, a linebacker-sized SWAT leader and former Marine, is parked about twenty yards short of the Tucker Boulevard intersection where, eleven days ago, he helped corral and arrest 123 people, including protesters, journalists and neighborhood residents. Officers were recorded on video filmed by livestreamer Rebelutionary Z as they manhandled people who had already surrendered, pepper sprayed people on their knees.

"It's going to be like this every night," witnesses say Rossomanno warned that night.

State Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis) has just watched video of the arrests, and he is upset.

"When they did what they did, they called it 'kettling,'" Franks says over a bullhorn. "They said they 'kettled' them."

The kinetic 33-year-old lawmaker has been on the front lines of the protests every day since September 15, when a white ex-St. Louis cop named Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black 24-year-old whom he suspected of making a parking-lot drug deal.

With images of the kettle fresh in his head, Franks thinks it is time for Rossomanno to understand what it is like to be surrounded, penned in with no escape route. By the time he and several dozen marchers swarm to the front and sides of the sergeant's white-and-blue Chevrolet Tahoe, a second, smaller band of protesters has already fanned across the street behind the vehicle, blocking it in. For the next twelve minutes or so, the crowd is in the officer's face, shouting at him from all sides. A woman holds a sign in front of his windshield that says "My Son Matters" above a "Black Lives Matter" hashtag.

Sgt. Brian Rossomanno speaks into his radio as protesters 'kettle' him on Sept. 28 in downtown St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
Sgt. Brian Rossomanno speaks into his radio as protesters 'kettle' him on Sept. 28 in downtown St. Louis.

Rossomanno has a long face and bags under his eyes that give him the melancholy expression of a cartoon hound dog. As he sits in the SUV, he alternates between speaking into his radio and holding up his phone to film the protesters.

"Fire Rossomanno!" the crowd shouts. "Fire Rossomanno!"

Riot King holds the loudspeaker mic in front of his mouth and begins what has become a familiar refrain: "This is an unlawful assembly. This is an order to disperse." He warns that those who linger are subject to arrest. He threatens to deploy "chemical munitions."

This is a big part of how Rossomanno earned his nickname. The frequent threats. The reminders that arrests, pepper spray or worse are subject to his whims. The protesters do not call him Riot King because he responds to riots; it is because, they say, he brings the riot.

He seems to have embraced the image. On the Facebook page for his side business, a company that provides security details and training, the caption below a picture of him included the hashtags #riotking and #protestseason. The post was only removed after livestreamer Heather De Mian, who had taken the photo, complained on Twitter about him pilfering her work.

And yet what galls many protesters about Rossomanno isn't just that he's mercurial; it's that he simply isn't effective. Not only is he prone to inflame tempers on the street, they say, but his aggression actually fuels further action.

Take tonight, for example. Other supervisors assigned to monitor the near-daily marches have mostly avoided these situations simply by putting their vehicles in reverse and driving up the street a bit. As long as the demonstrations are non-violent, as tonight's has been, the idea is to maintain enough distance to avoid needless confrontations. Rossomanno, however, remained defiantly in the middle of the street as the crowd approached. Now it is too late to drive away. He sits cocooned behind the wheel, working his radio and awaiting backup.

Sgt. Randy Jemerson tries to calm protesters mobbing the car of his colleague. - DOYLE MURPHY
Sgt. Randy Jemerson tries to calm protesters mobbing the car of his colleague.

Sgt. Randy Jemerson is among the first to arrive. A stoic professional, he joined the department in November 1997 as part of the same class as Rossomanno and is also a SWAT leader and tactics instructor. But where protesters have come to see his counterpart as temperamental and vindictive, Jemerson is respected as a calming influence.

He starts by working his way to the driver's side window of the Tahoe, making himself a human barrier between the crowd and Rossomanno while he quietly explains to protesters that they have put him in a bad position by surrounding a police vehicle.

But as Jemerson works to de-escalate, there is a new antagonism from the east. A line of riot police with shields, helmets and batons starts to march across Tucker toward the demonstrators. The helmeted troops step in unison, chanting "move back, move back," until they reach the mouth of Washington and stop. The crowd leaves the Tahoe and goes to meet them, freeing the cop from the kettle.

But Rossomanno is not the type to make a graceful retreat. Now that he's no longer boxed in, he opens his car door and calls out to Franks.

"Mr. Franks, you're wanted for assault on a law enforcement officer," he says.

Franks is in disbelief. Assault on a law enforcement officer? When? Where?

"You hit me on the arm," Rossomanno says. "We've got it on tape."

The accusation touches off another flurry of shouting. Franks angrily denies assaulting anyone. He yells at the highest-ranking officer on the scene, Major John Hayden, to get control of his sergeant. After more shouting, the focus shifts back to the front line, where protest organizers are ushering demonstrators onto the sidewalk even as they demand the riot police retreat across the intersection.

A force of at least two dozen St. Louis County police officers has arrived, dressed in helmets and heavy tactical gear. A few carry the bright orange "less lethal" shotguns capable of firing bean bag rounds. Some protesters worry that police are setting the stage for yet another kettle.

Rossomanno, now with a small army surrounding him, chats with an elderly woman at the edge of the street. He has apparently abandoned the assault claim against Franks and is telling the woman just how lenient he has been.

"Right now, we have every legal right to start snatching people," he says.

The woman is hoping for peace. No protester has thrown anything or broken any windows. Really, all they did was circle his Tahoe and yell at him.

"If you surround a police car and starting banging on it, that's going to elicit a response," Rossomanno says.

Jemerson has continued to work back and forth between the crowds and the police line. Eventually, with protesters on the sidewalk, the riot police retreat back across the intersection, draining the tension as they go. The crowd goes the other way. They chant "united we stand, united we fall," and march past the county cops still holding those orange shotguns.

The mood is bright as they turn left and downtown opens up. Soon a new chant begins: "Fuck Rossomanno! Fuck Rossomanno!"

Rossomanno and Sgt. Randy Jemerson (right) have a good cop, bad cop reputation among protesters. - THEO WELLING
Rossomanno and Sgt. Randy Jemerson (right) have a good cop, bad cop reputation among protesters.

Sergeant Brian Rossomanno is not a rogue cop. That would imply he is out of step with the direction of the department's leadership, and that is surely not the case. In fact, the 45-year-old is not only the most prominent face for police on the front lines of the demonstrations, he is the instructor who teaches other St. Louis officers tactics for crowd control. It is his specialty, and he is a student of the genre.

When the Republican National Convention came to Cleveland last year, the police department sent Rossomanno and a team of officers to pow wow with other riot cops who had come from around the country to learn and share tips. It was from that trip that St. Louis police got the idea to use bike cops at protests. Now, the speedy, wheeled fleet is a regular part of the city's response.

"Sgt. Rossomanno is the department's most qualified team coordinator and plays an integral role in civil disobedience training," police spokeswoman Schron Jackson says in an email.

His influence is such that even when he is not in the street, you can see his fingerprints on the work of his pupils — lines of Riot Princes rattling cans of pepper spray.

Rossomanno's role has only grown under Lt. Colonel Lawrence O'Toole. The interim chief is the former commander of the department's mobile reserve and SWAT units and is known as an old-school cop who came of age in a less-diplomatic era of American policing. The department's overall response to protests is his decision. Does he use more bike cops? Send patrolmen out in regular uniforms? Or is this a situation for helmets and batons?

So far, O'Toole has leaned unapologetically on the riot police, with Rossomanno as the tip of the spear. That's an unsettling thought to protesters who first encountered the sergeant three years ago during the Ferguson protests.

"Often times, you can figure out what's going to happen that night by how angry he is, which is pretty frightening," says Keith Rose, a seasoned protester.

Rose and others originally started calling Rossomanno "Riot King" because tensions escalated whenever he arrived on the scene. Also, he wore no identification, and they didn't know his name back then. Rose says he has since tried to cultivate a working relationship of sorts with Rossomanno, solely as a way to sense his mood and gauge the danger level that night. Some days, they have cordial conversations. Others, Rose advises people to watch out.

"He's the one you look at if you want to know what's going to happen next," Rose says.

Cheyenne Green, one of the protests' core organizers, says she can tell the difference between a night when Sgt. Jemerson is in charge versus Rossomanno.

"When Jemerson is out, there is more leeway," she says. "When Rossomanno is out, there is more police aggression, more police presence, and there is animosity in the air."

O'Toole has rotated higher-ranking commanders in and out of the protests, but Rossomano has been a regular presence since the first day. He was involved on the night of the mass arrests (the department denies using a kettle tactic) at Washington and Tucker, when officers swept up everyone on the street, including St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk.

Hours later, O'Toole bragged in a news conference that police had "owned the night" and praised officers for doing "outstanding work."

The actions of police that night are now the subject of two lawsuits, including a class action suit filed by the ACLU alleging that officers beat people, erased videos from their phones and ripped off their goggles so they could be pepper sprayed directly in the eyes. A documentary filmmaker from Kansas City claims he was knocked unconscious and officers tried to smash his camera. At the end of the night, a chorus of police officers chanted "Whose streets? Our streets," witnesses said.

Mayor Lyda Krewson, who stood at O'Toole's side during the resulting news conference, has since said she disapproves of the "police owned the night" comment. She and the interim chief eventually issued a joint statement promising an investigation into the allegations.

click to enlarge Bystanders watch from the bridge over I-64 as protesters march along the highway. - DOYLE MURPHY
Bystanders watch from the bridge over I-64 as protesters march along the highway.

The meeting at Schnucks was a decoy.

Organizers had announced a 6 p.m. meet-up on October 3 for the night's demonstration, but this turned out to be only the jumping-off point.

After a brief huddle in the parking lot of the grocery chain's Lindell Boulevard store, the protesters who were willing to risk arrest loaded up three, four, five to a car and started driving west.

Now, more than 100 people are on foot in the middle of Interstate 64/40, marching east. They walk in the glow of headlights under Compton Avenue. City police officers and crowds of curious onlookers have gathered along the overpass to watch the procession from above and snap photos. A line of more than a dozen St. Louis County police cars trails the group, but there is little to do but roll along and wait.

For weeks, keeping protesters off the highways has been a top priority for police. Officers and state troopers have repeatedly massed at on-ramps any time they have spotted marchers headed that way. But tonight, they have been out-maneuvered. Carloads of protesters drove onto I-64 and then stopped to unload passengers directly onto the asphalt. The transport vehicles then formed a rolling barrier to protect the marchers from regular traffic.

Soon, the backed-up cars stretch out of sight. The protesters lock arms and march forward as photographers hurry into position to capture the scene.

When the group finally exits at Jefferson Avenue, they turn north and slide over to the sidewalk. Police are waiting. Riot cops form a line across Jefferson while bike officers pedal around Clark Avenue to sweep in from behind. Finally off the highway, the county cops cut off traffic on Jefferson and surge toward Market Street to join the operation. Protesters are surrounded and ordered to "sit down!" on the sidewalk and curb. Officers move in with plastic zip ties to bind their wrists. Franks posts a message on Twitter: "We getting locked up!"

Rossomanno stands in Downtown West as officers corral protesters who blocked the highway. - DOYLE MURPHY
Rossomanno stands in Downtown West as officers corral protesters who blocked the highway.

Protesters who were not on the highway or who had peeled off before the arrests have begun to gather at Jefferson and Market, but they are kept back by police. Rossomanno strolls along next to the newcomers. One shouts that police never gave anyone a dispersal order, and the sergeant says that's true: "We're under no obligation to give a dispersal order."

A woman asks, "Why did you arrest them then?"

Rossomanno replies, "If you've got a burglar trapped in a house, you don't give them a dispersal order."

Vans roll in, and officers begin loading up their prisoners in bunches. There are 143 in total. The group includes pastors and multiple journalists. It is a diverse crowd. Young black men from the city are being locked up along with middle-aged white women from University City, Clayton and Webster Groves. Several are being arrested for the second time since the protests began. All are charged with trespassing.

They call out their names and birth dates to people beyond the police line who will work on finding lawyers and raising bail if need be. A few ask friends to tell their spouses what has happened or inform bosses they will be late for work in the morning. The prisoners seem generally upbeat, still riding high on the success of their caper.

"Show me what a family looks like," chants one. "This is what a family looks like."

Police are similarly in a good mood. A bike cop gives a photographer a thumbs up, and Rossomanno grins and shakes hands with a county police officer dressed like a paratrooper.

As the last of the prisoners wait to be transported, a crowd begins to form downtown on the steps of the jail. People bring tents, and someone orders pizza for all. A contingent of lawyers off to the side work their cell phones and wait to be allowed in. A jail supervisor in a white shirt steps outside and taps his hand against his leg to the rhythm of the chants: "If we don't get it, shut it down!"

A few die-hards sleep there all night, and reinforcements arrive in the morning with coffee. Franks emerges from lockup a little before 2 p.m., wearing a Superman T-shirt.

"One of the arresting officers made a comment, said, 'I bet this will teach y'all about protesting,'" he says. "I said, 'If that's what you gathered out of this, you need to go back to the drawing board.'"

A total of 143 people were arrested on October 3 after they blocked a section of Interstate 64/40. - DOYLE MURPHY
A total of 143 people were arrested on October 3 after they blocked a section of Interstate 64/40.

St. Louis city police had made 306 arrests in the ongoing protests as of Monday.

Although cops have reported violence, including an officer whose jaw was dislocated by a thrown piece of brick, the vast majority have been for people walking or standing in places police told them to leave. This does not count the 22 people tackled and hauled out of the St. Louis Galleria in Richmond Heights. It does include the Rev. Darryl Gray, twice. He was knocked to the ground on September 29 outside Busch Stadium and charged with interfering. He says police turned on him when he stepped between them and a female pastor whom they were shoving out of the roadway. This set off a chain reaction. Another man was hit with a taser and arrested when he started to come to Gray's side. Democratic Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge says he was pepper sprayed in the face when he asked what was going on.

Livestreamer Heather De Mian, who has covered protests for years, was pepper sprayed from the side as she filmed the chaos from her wheelchair.

"They seem to be threatened by women in wheelchairs with cameras," De Mian deadpans later.

The incidents have continued to pile up, angering new groups of people each time. Critics say the clashes are examples of a needlessly aggressive, militarized police force.

Those who see Rossomanno as part of that culture point to his side business training law enforcement, security officers and even the military for nightmare scenarios such as active shooters. He is the co-founder of a company called 0311 Tactical Solutions and lists corporate clients such as A-B InBev and the St. Louis Cardinals. "0311" is Marine code for a rifleman, and the company website is filled with pictures of warriors in training: helmeted tactical teams with guns drawn, a security detail with black boxes hiding their faces.

"Too much is stake in this world of ever increasing violent incidents," warns 0311. "One casualty is too many."

The site previously included the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as a client, although the company noted it didn't have a contract. Those references were removed after Post-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Kohler began questioning possible conflicts of interest. Schron Jackson, the city police spokeswoman, tells the Riverfront Times that 0311 Tactical has no affiliation with the department, although multiple officers work second jobs with the company.

Reached by email, Rossomanno says he will agree to an interview if his bosses at the department clear it. But the police spokeswoman says he will not be available.

A few of the questions sent to his 0311 Tactical email were later answered from a general company email and attributed to 0311 Tactical's management.

The company tries to instill a warrior or combat mindset in its instruction, but only for specific purposes, such as active shooter training, the email says.

"In that very narrow and specific discipline, we do advocate a particular mindset for those going towards the gunfire during a mass shooting incident," it says. "It is a mindset that is not appropriate for nor is it applicable to all police functions, such as patrol or conflict resolution, and we never claimed it to be."

Sgt. Rossomanno (shown on November 30, 2014) first landed on protesters' radar following the death of Michael Brown. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Sgt. Rossomanno (shown on November 30, 2014) first landed on protesters' radar following the death of Michael Brown.

The company declines to say how many St. Louis police officers it employs. The founding papers filed with the Missouri Secretary of State name Rossomanno and police Captain Michael Deeba, a controversial supervisor who was implicated in a costly retaliation case and disciplined when officers under his command were caught helping themselves to World Series tickets seized from scalpers.

A tweet from 2015 shows Rossomanno posing with a client and others identified as 0311 instructors. One of the men is former St. Louis police officer Jason Flanery, who fatally shot VonDerrit Myers Jr. in 2014 in the Shaw neighborhood and was later forced out of the department when he crashed a police SUV after drinking and using cocaine.

A cached version of the company website lists officer Joshua Becherer, who was sued along with Rossomanno and other officers by journalists who were arrested several years ago in Ferguson. The out-of-town reporters claimed they were trying to get back to their car when they were intercepted by police in armored vehicles. The officers motioned them to come forward. When they did, holding their press credentials above their heads, Becherer shot them both with what they believed to be rubber bullets, according to the suit. Rossomanno was supervising, the journalists claimed. The city eventually settled the suit.

Asked about the suit, 0311's management says, "We encourage you to research the lawsuit you mention more thoroughly before making that part of your article. Mr. Becherer and Mr. Rossomanno were never even deposed in that case."

Ex-city cop Ronnie Fowlkes was also listed in early versions of 0311's website. Fowlkes became a notorious figure when he sent a racist email to 23 people, including retired city cops and at least a half-dozen current ones, after Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

"I can't believe I live in a country full of NIGGER LOVERS," he wrote. Chris King of the St. Louis American, who obtained the email and broke the story in 2008, counted 31 exclamation points at the end.

The email was exposed after a black officer, who was apparently included by accident, read the email and called Fowlkes out.

Heather Taylor, president of the union that represents black St. Louis police officers, points to the scandal as symptomatic of a cultural problem within the department.

"Everyone that was on that email should have chastised him and immediately put him in his place," she says. "And the only one who did was the African-American officer."

In June, a white officer shot an off-duty black officer, apparently mistaking him for a fleeing car thief. The white officer claimed he fired "fearing for his safety," even though two other officers were on scene had already identified the black officer as their colleague. Taylor, a sergeant who works homicides and juvenile crimes, also mentions the mass arrests from Washington and Tucker. Among those bloodied by riot police was a black undercover officer who was embedded with protesters — a stunning detail first revealed by the Post-Dispatch.

Given the problems within the department, Taylor is not surprised to hear stories of police abuse coming out of the protests.

"Did anyone expect anything different?" she asks.

Rossomanno was one of the police officers who received Fowlkes' email after Obama's election.

"This issue has come up before and we have then, and currently do now, condemn the 2008 email in the strongest of terms," 0311 tells the RFT. "The media has in the past chosen to ignore that. Mr. Fowlkes does not work for 0311."

The company does not respond to follow-up questions — including why 0311, which was founded in 2010, would have ever been affiliated with Fowlkes after his email.

The last thing 0311 says is this: "We assist organizations in preparing for the worst case scenario. In light of recent events, the need for such preparation speaks for itself."

Protesters marched to the headquarters of the police union last week. - DOYLE MURPHY
Protesters marched to the headquarters of the police union last week.

A police helicopter hovers overhead as protesters bunch up in the parking lot of another Schnucks, this one in the Hampton Village Plaza in south city.

The headquarters of the St. Louis Police Officers Association are a quarter-mile to the north, but the demonstrators take a meandering route to get there.

"We do have some folks out here who don't necessarily agree with us, but that's alright," Franks says as they head across Hampton Avenue toward the Target.

About a dozen counter protesters stand on the corner, some of them calling "blue lives matter" and "all lives matter." They wave flags in support of police — a version of the American flag in white and black with a blue line for one of the bars. Shouting ensues, and a pair of patrolmen in fluorescent traffic vests slide in to keep a little barrier between the groups. But it is short-lived, and no one seems too mad.

There are signs protesters are out-dueling police in the battle for hearts and minds. A recent poll showed roughly equal disapproval rates for the tactics of both groups, and 62 percent agreed that protesters had "legitimate concerns that need to be addressed." Support for a sales tax measure to increase officer pay has fallen to 52 percent from 60 in August, before demonstrations began.

The protesters march through the Target parking lot and then out into the intersection of Chippewa and Hampton, where they spread out to block the intersection on all four sides. There is minor drama for a few moments when a motorcyclist in a Patriot Guard vest tries to nose his way through the line. He eventually pushes through, and they let him go. The "Ride with Respect" patch on his back disappears from sight as the lines close up again.

There is potential for conflict when they move up the street to the union hall. Jeff Roorda, the union's business manager, has spent recent years serving as something like the id for the angry cop. He wore a Darren Wilson bracelet after Michael Brown was killed. He wrote "THIS BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS, MR. PRESIDENT" above a picture of two bloody hands after five police officers were killed in Dallas during the Obama presidency. And when the union picked a fight with business owners who signed a letter in support of protesters, more than a few suspected it was yet another Roorda classic.

"We know he's a racist, and I don't mean sorta," calls out one of the protesters. "Y'all gotta fire that pig Jeff Roorda!"

Nobody comes out of the union hall. The protesters go unchallenged as they speak, and eventually move back toward Schnucks. It is a pleasant night. A group of school kids have joined the crowd. A little girl rides on her father's shoulders. Some officers watch from a distance, but they're all in short-sleeve uniforms. Captain Angela Coonce of south city's Second District walks the street. There's not a shield or a helmet in sight.

The next morning, Franks dissects the police response to protests while he eats a late breakfast at Chris' at the Docket. He respects Coonce, because she does not act like he is the enemy.

O'Toole, with his "police owned the night" approach, is an example of the culture problem at the head of the department, he says. Then you have a sergeant like Rossomanno lining up his men in full riot gear, blasting people with pepper spray.

"Take off the riot gear," he says. "Why are you in riot gear? What are you coming to protect, and who are you at war with?"

Change is coming, he says. He has begun to feel it as he moves across the region. When he visits his mom at work in Webster Groves, middle-aged white women give him hugs and ask how they can help. Older white men see him in the county and tell him to keep fighting.

"We not going to be deterred, and we not going to let anybody paint a narrative for us," he says. "You know, if folks can't look at this diverse of a group, this diversity that's out here, and see that change is going to come, and we're not going to allow anything but change, effective change, then they're sadly mistaken."

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