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Saturday, May 29, 2021

A Police Killing in St. Louis Remains Shrouded in Darkness

Posted By and on Sat, May 29, 2021 at 6:58 AM

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click to enlarge A basketball court is seen in the backyard at the home of Antoine and Tammy Bufford on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • A basketball court is seen in the backyard at the home of Antoine and Tammy Bufford on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis.


Officer #1 and his partner that night, Officer #2, were part of the Mobile Reserve Unit, a crew of roving tactical officers that responds to hotspots. “Looking for trouble,” as one news article described it.

The unit has been around for more than 60 years. When MRU debuted in 1959, a writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat described it as “the new shock-unit troop organized to back up district officers in the ceaseless war against crime.” Reports from its early years suggest a history of unconstitutional practices: In its first five months of existence, MRU officers questioned more than 28,000 people, the Associated Press reported. Over the years, the unit has worked alongside the SWAT team.

“They're sort of the cowboys of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department,” said Rich McNelley, a former public defender whose cases at times involved MRU officers in the early 2000s.

The MRU has “historically been known as the jump-out squad,” said activist John Chasnoff, who has worked on policing issues in St. Louis for more than two decades. “There’s been many complaints over the years of them suddenly descending on people, harassing people, holding guns to their head, and other heavy-handed tactics.”

The fact that the unit has for decades also functioned as the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s SWAT team — for which they receive highly militarized training — is, “structurally, a big mistake,” Chasnoff said. An analysis by his group, the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, found that in at least eight shootings between 2013 and 2018, the officers involved were either current or future members of the MRU and SWAT teams.

The mobile officers are not assigned to a district. They can go anywhere in the city, a style of hotspot policing that appears to have changed little over the years. A review by a risk assessment firm published last December found that the SLMPD lacks a coordinated crime plan, as the targeting of crime hotspots results in officers flooding already over-policed and under-resourced neighborhoods. Operating like a blunt tool on violent crime, SLMPD’s “broken windows”-style policing within the MRU creates "significant blind spots," according to the risk assessment report.

click to enlarge The gangway between 533 and 535 Bates Avenue is seen during the day on May 17, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • The gangway between 533 and 535 Bates Avenue is seen during the day on May 17, 2021, in St. Louis.

It Was Very Dark

When mobile officers roamed the area near the BP the night Bufford was killed, several of their in-car video cameras were rolling. For Officer #1 and Officer #2, their car video was never pulled. Investigative reports do not say whether it ever existed.

The only police shooting video saved on December 12, 2019, came from a different part of the city earlier in the day where a white man was robbing a White Castle. He pointed a gun at officers before running away, the video shows. Police then shot the man. In the knee. He survived.

In Bufford’s case, investigators retrieved scraps of dispatch tape that depict the killing and its aftermath. The audio quickly escalates into chaos, after the police-citizen encounter has already turned into a pursuit.

Within about a minute: “Got shots fired! Shots fired, shots fired!”

The dispatcher asks if it’s the officer or suspect who is down.

“We need EMS urgent!” an officer says.

“For an officer or suspect?”

“For the suspect. The officer’s OK,” one of them says.

“EMS is responding. District One's en route. Are all mobile officers accounted for?” “Everybody is OK.”

“That's good,” the dispatcher responds.

But what happened in the gangway, in between these frantic dispatches, only Officer #1 survived to say.

While there are no known eyewitnesses, there are earwitness accounts from people in nearby homes and businesses. Their accounts of the verbal commands they heard Officer #1 give differ. Where they align, however, is that at no point did Officer #1 identify himself as a police officer, tell Bufford he was under arrest, or tell him that he had committed a crime.

Even if there had been eyewitnesses, the gangway was too dark to see anything, according to Officer #2.

“How was the lighting in the gangway?” police investigators asked.

“It was very dark,” Officer #2 said in a video interview.

“Did you have to use your flashlight to see down?”

"Yes, I did."

“When you first got to the gangway, did you have your flashlight on? “No, I did not.”

“How far could you see?”

“I could not see in the gangway” Officer #2 said. “It was very dark.”

The investigators asked Officer #1 the same.

“It was dark back there,” Green, the lieutenant, said. “Did you have any light or anything?”

“No, I did not have a chance to retrieve my flashlight ... because the fact that he had a firearm was more important for me to have control with both my hands free,” Officer #1 answered.

Later in the interview, another investigator returned to the point.

“I noticed it was pretty dark,” he said. “How was your vision in that?”

Officer #1, along with his attorney, seemed to register the point of emphasis.

“I could see,” he said, nodding. “I could see.”

The FIU report documents the lighting conditions as being "during the hours of darkness" yet notes that "commercial grade streetlamps" were on at the time of the shooting. The report also mentions the existence of a neighbor’s doorbell camera that captured video of the gangway just after the shooting for several minutes. The video was turned over to the Circuit Attorney’s Office, according to the FIU investigation. The footage is reportedly not “very good quality,” which itself might testify to the poor lighting conditions. In response to records requests, the SLMPD said it didn’t have a copy of the video, and the Circuit Attorney’s Office denied the request, saying it is still investigating the case.

Whatever Officer #1 claims to have seen in the darkness, including Bufford looking at him “eye to eye,” what he says he thought happened in the gangway did not, in fact, occur. He remembers Bufford shooting at him. He didn’t.

“To my mind, I thought he did shoot at me,” Officer #1 told investigators. “In my mind, I thought he was shooting at me too.”

The sequence of it was weird, he said: “I remember pop-pop [pause] pop-pop. … It wasn’t a smooth pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.” Then, he reiterated: “I do, I believe that he was shooting at me.”

“Do you think he fired first, or did you fire first?” the investigator asked.

“I think we were both about the same time,” Officer #1 chuckled.

Bufford’s six gunshot wounds, front and back, tell their own story, though it is nearly impossible to determine the sequence of shots.

“Most of the time you can't reliably order the sequence of the gunshot wounds based on medical evidence,” said Dr. James Filkins, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy in this case. With respect to the question of whether Bufford was facing or had his back to the officer, based on the medical evidence, according to Filkins, “either scenario is possible.”

The first gunshot identified in the medical examiner’s report was the fatal one to the head. Some of the other wounds, the one in the right thigh and the two in his face, are consistent with Officer #1’s account. But it’s the gunshot to Bufford’s back that complicates his story. Based on the resting position of Bufford’s body — according to interviews and handwritten renderings of the scene, he was on his stomach, meaning that he would have fallen forward — a shot to the back complicates Officer #1’s statement that Bufford was facing him when he fired his police weapon at him.

Another complication to Officer #1’s narrative is the shell casings from his gun. While Officer #1 reports shooting from the mouth of the gangway, many of the casings were found toward the middle of the pathway, indicating that he may have been closer than he claimed.

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