The ACLU is suing two St. Louis cops, alleging they took revenge on an advocate for the city’s unhoused because she recorded them making a pair of arrests.
Sharon Morrow, director of street outreach for the nonprofit Street Kitchen, was filming officers last year outside of City Hall when she was ordered out of her SUV, slammed face first to the ground and arrested in front of City Hall.
“These officers retaliated against Ms. Morrow because she exercised her right to record their misconduct,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a written statement.
The incident began on April 14, 2019. Morrow was in a downtown park to hand out food and other supplies, according to the lawsuit. When she saw police in the middle of an arrest, she crossed the street, pulled out her cellphone and started recording. Parts of the confrontation were captured on two video clips — one recorded by Morrow and another by a witness — that were provided to the Riverfront Times.
In Morrow’s video, she approaches as St. Louis police Officer Stephen Ogunjobi and another officer are questioning a man who is handcuffed and seated on a short wall on the north side of City Hall. The man’s identity is unclear — the video from the ACLU has been edited to blur his face and bleep out his personal information. But judging by the conversation, he seems to be unhoused.
“Y’all ain’t got no warrants,” he tells the officers. “I just got a summons up there earlier today for so-called trespassing on the vent, trying to keep warm.”
As soon as Ogunjobi sees Morrow, he tells her to move back. She retreats a few steps and continues filming. The handcuffed man is upset, but he doesn’t make any move to get off the wall. Ogunjobi tells another observer, Marcus Hunt, to move back.
“I’m not going to tell you again,” Ogunjobi says. Ogunjobi and the other officer then help the handcuffed man to his feet, take him to a nearby police cruiser and place him in the back. For a moment, it appears the interaction is ending. But then Ogunjobi turns around and walks toward Hunt, pausing briefly to look at Morrow, who is still recording. The ACLU suit notes that Ogunjobi walks about twelve paces to where Hunt is standing and then demands his name.
Hunt says, “I’m not telling you shit.”
Ogunjobi turns to his partner Officer Bridget Fournie and says, “You got a second set of cuffs, Bridget?”
It’s worth noting here what police say happened, according to an incident report:
While conducting a pedestrian check relative to a call for drug sales, suspect #1 [Hunt] started to yell, and told multiple homeless individuals to surround the police and videotape the incident. Suspect #1 refused to vacate the immediate area. He was advised he was under arrest. Officers grabbed a hold of him and attempted to place his hands behind his back. During the struggle an Officer fell to the ground with suspect #1 falling on top of him. Once on the ground suspect #1 still refused to place his hands behind his back. After he was tased all resistance ceased. He was then placed in handcuffs.
That’s not exactly the way it played out in the video. Morrow’s footage shows another person trying to play peacemaker, but Ogunjobi has apparently made up his mind.
“Put your hands behind your back,” he tells Hunt.
In response, Hunt lies down on his back and stretches his arms out at his sides. Morrow tries to talk Ogunjobi down.
“This guy didn’t do anything,” she says. “He really did nothing, guys.”
Ogunjobi tells Hunt to roll over and starts cuffing his right wrist as a handful of other officers arrive to help.
“Stop resisting,” an officer yells as Hunt starts to get to his feet. It escalates quickly from there. One officer grabs Hunt around the neck, others try to force his arms behind his back, and Ogunjobi knees Hunt in the thigh as they drag him back down to the sidewalk.
“Put your hands behind your back,” an officer says.
“Nope,” Hunt says. “Nope.”
Police shock him twice with a stun gun before rolling him over and cuffing him. Here again is the police version of what happened from an incident report:
Suspect #2 [Morrow] had responded to the incident and began videoing the resisting on her phone. She was told during the incident to back away; however, she continued to stand within 3 feet of the officers. During the resisting with suspect #1, the officers had to step around her. While in the process of being detained suspect #2 retreated to her vehicle and locked her door. Suspect #2 was told to exit the vehicle and when she did, she refused to place her hands behind her back, she was taken to the ground and placed in handcuffs.
In the video, Morrow doesn’t appear to interfere with police. By the time Hunt is cuffed, it once again seems the incident is coming to a close, but that’s not what happens.
“Get back,” Ogunjobi tells people nearby. “Get back, or you’re going next.”
Another officer steps in front and ushers Morrow back to her SUV, which is parked nearby. Ogunjobi yells from the sidewalk, “Get in your car and leave before you don’t have the option.”
Morrow says, “I’m leaving right now, and I don’t really have to leave.”
“You do,” Ogunjobi says.
Morrow gets in her vehicle and turns it on. You can hear the clicking of a turn signal. By this time, police vehicles are parked in front and behind her on Market. Another officer is standing in the street in front of her. The ACLU suit says Morrow was trying to pull onto Market, but she couldn’t see around the police vehicles. Ogunjobi leaves the other officers and Hunt and comes to her window.
“If you don’t leave, I’m going to arrest you,” he is heard saying through Morrow’s rolled up window.
Morrow responds, “I can’t see, sir. I’m trying.”
At this point, Ogunjobi yanks open her door, and Morrow appears to pull it closed. She continues to plead that she is trying to leave. The officer pounds his fist on the window.
“Step out,” he says. “Step out of the car.”
Morrow tries to appeal to another officer off camera.
“Hey, this guy is out of bounds, man,” she says, referring to Ogunjobi. “He is out of bounds. I couldn’t leave. I was trying to leave. This guy was behind me. I couldn’t see to go.”
The clip of Morrow’s video ends there. The ACLU says another officer, Jacob Stein, threatened to smash Morrow’s window if she didn’t get out of the SUV, and she complied. A second video, recorded by a witness standing across the street, shows Morrow outside the SUV, surrounded by officers. People are screaming for police to let her go. Officers pull her arms behind her back, and one of them sweeps her legs out from under her, slamming her to the street.
“Her face, her face hit the concrete,” a woman cries.
The rest of the video is officers picking up Morrow and loading her in a police van. She was charged with interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest. The ACLU says charges were later dropped without explanation. Charges against Hunt were also dropped — a pattern that would repeat itself earlier this year when he and another man were accused by federal prosecutors of posting threatening messages on Facebook related to the George Floyd protests. In June, those charges were also dismissed as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
The ACLU lawsuit says Morrow is a breast cancer survivor and has undergone multiple surgeries that have left her with mobility issues. Being manhandled by officers left her bruised and sore, the complaint says.
“It also reactivated severe neuropathy and shooting pains in Ms. Morrow’s arms, hands, and fingers — something that had previously occurred as a side effect of the treatment she had undergone for breast cancer but had since dissipated,” the suit says.
Ogunjobi and Stein are listed as the two defendants. A police spokesman declined to comment on the suit, and the city counselor didn’t respond to a phone message left on Friday afternoon.
This is at least the third time the city has been sued for an interaction involving Ogunjobi. A pastor and another advocate were cited by the officer in October 2018 for handing out sandwiches to the homeless. The ensuing lawsuit alleges that the city violated the men’s constitutional rights, including the right to freely exercise their religion. That case is still pending.
In February, a jury awarded University City’s school board president $3,500 in a lawsuit she filed after Ogunjobi shocked her three times with a taser following a 2015 protest. Kristine Hendrix, represented by ArchCity Defenders, sued the city on multiple counts, including assault. The jury rejected several of the claims but found Hendrix had proved a battery allegation against Ogunjobi.
After the verdict, Hendrix had mixed feelings.
“I am trying to see the positive in that they recognized that battery occurred,” Hendrix told the St. Louis American. “I’m disappointed they didn’t see the extent of Ogunjobi’s actions because when they are not held accountable, there’s a danger that the practice and culture of misconduct will continue.”
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