Scott O'Rourke, now 27, says he was drawn to the Occupy protests that filled Kiener Plaza several years ago. The Oklahoma native, who now works in construction, says he had an interest in "standing up for people who aren't seen, or are forgotten." But during a May 24, 2012 protest, a case of mistaken identity changed his life forever.
On that day, some protesters began to use spray paint on buildings, angering a local property manager. The manager collared a protester, who broke free and ran through the crowd.
When the manager gave chase, he lost the person with the spray paint, but spotted a different protester — O'Rourke. Fearing violence, O'Rourke took off running. That was apparently enough to convince the property manager and a St. Louis police officer that O'Rourke was the guy they were looking for, according to the suit that the non-profit law firm ArchCity Defenders filed on O'Rourke's behalf in federal court on Friday.
Even though Rourke put his hands up in a show of surrender, the officer maced him, the suit alleges. He was then arrested, cuffed and taken to the police station.
At the station, the suit alleges, Detective David King asked O'Rourke about his address. He didn't have one, so he gave his post office box. "That's not a fucking address," King shouted, according to the lawsuit, and "swung his arm across the interrogation table, punching Mr. O'Rourke in the face." The other officer in the room, Detective Steven Burle, watched without intervening or rendering aid, the suit alleges.
Though O'Rourke was never given treatment during his detention at the station, a medical exam the morning of his release would find a fractured nose requiring surgery and a blackened left eye.
O'Rourke was initially charged with five felonies — felony property destruction, felony second-degree assault, two counts of felony assaulting a police officer and felony resisting arrest. Eventually, the charges were reduced to misdemeanor counts of property damage, assault in the third degree and resisting arrest, as well as two felony counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer.
At trial in April 2014, the suit alleges, both Detective King and Detective Burle admitted that King hit O'Rourke in the nose, but said it was because O'Rourke had punched King first, with his right hand.
O'Rourke is left handed.
The jury acquitted O'Rourke on all charges, but the case continues to cause trouble for him today. He ran up $15,000 in legal bills. "That's still a debt I have to pay off," he says. He credit his defense attorney, Joseph Welch, for being lenient: "He's waiting for it to come through, because he knows I don't have a lot of money." And he still has breathing problems; he hasn't been able to afford surgery to repair his nose.
But the trauma has also had an impact. "It didn't really make me comfortable around the police in St. Louis any more," he says. He also suffers from anxiety: "I don't like it when people sneak up on me."
O'Rourke knows he's not alone, and that people of color have suffered far worse than what he has. "It's not just about me and what I experienced," he says. "It's a societal thing."
But as the suit details, his case suggests some problems with the way the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department handles allegations of police brutality. The suit alleges that Detective King and Detective Burle have "a history of similar misconduct, which was known to the [department] and the city of St. Louis."
Among other things, Detective King allegedly assaulted a man at a St. Louis bar while off-duty in 2003 and was involved in a 2006 police chase that ended with the death of both suspects and an innocent bystander. As for Detective Burle, he was sued in a case that had some similarities to the one filed by O'Rourke, the suit alleges: "There, much like the events described herein, Defendant Burle stood by and watched while his fellow officers unlawfully arrested, strangled and beat the plaintiff for over an hour." Yet after those incidents, both officers were promoted.
Says Nathaniel Carroll, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders,
Joseph Welch deserves a great deal of credit for his zealous work in defending Scott for the two years following the attack and during the successful jury trial.
It's important to note that the detectives and officers who attacked Mr. O'Rourke had long histories of using excessive force, failing to intervene to stop fellow officers from doing so, and a pattern of filing false charges against their victims to avoid liability and as a means to further exert unlawful control over the officers' victims. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department rewarded them with promotions and raises, further emboldening its malfeasant officers to violate with impunity the rights of individuals.
ArchCity Defenders' lawsuit alleges unlawful use of excessive force, failure to intervene, first amendment retaliation, malicious prosecution, conspiracy and abuse of process.
We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]