'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

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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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