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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

Page 7 of 7


click to enlarge Cortez Bufford’s bedroom is seen at the Bufford home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • Cortez Bufford’s bedroom is seen at the Bufford home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis.

Trigger Point


“We all carry out our prejudices,” said Alexa James, a police trauma specialist and CEO of Chicago’s chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “Fear is protective in many ways. It keeps us from things that have harmed us historically. But fear also reduces our opportunities to grow and expand and be uncomfortable.”

James has served on the Police Accountability Task Force in Chicago, created in 2015, in the wake of the dashcam video release of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times front and back by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted for murder in 2018. In an interview for this story, James spoke in general terms about police mental health issues and trauma, though she did not review the Bufford case specifically. Trauma changes the way we relate to other people. “Every single interaction you have and every experience you have, it colors the way that your lens of the world is. Period. End of story. It changes your perspective,” James said.

But trauma does not equal traumatized, nor does it lead to violence or reactivity, James explains. Individuals have different capacities for resilience: “We never know the trigger point of somebody, right? What is going to harm somebody and what is going to build resilience.”

Historically, police mental health services have not been well funded, but late in 2020, James became the new “senior advisor of wellness” to the Chicago Police Department, where she had previously provided trainings of officers for more than a decade. She also helped change the department’s policy for its Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program, where on-duty cops are referred after certain incidents.

“That cumulative trauma without any space in between to really debrief and process is not going to allow their brains to operate effectively because they’re in crisis mode,” James said. “They’re in fight or flight.”

A public safety issue itself, unaddressed trauma in officers is dangerous for both the individuals they engage with and themselves. Moreover, the collective trauma of officers interacts with that of communities they police, or over-police.

“When you put two groups of people together that both feel really impacted by not having ownership and power and control, it gets really messy,” James said, noting also the significant equity issues for communities of color. “One group is starting with a deficit.”

In St. Louis, the police chief and then-mayor put out a joint statement in mid-2020, expressing support for the hiring of mental and behavioral health specialists to assist their officers. They added that de-escalation training, implicit bias training, and racial equity training had been mandatory since 2014 at the SLMPD and that officers are taught to use the least amount of force possible to bring an incident under control while protecting life. The use of deadly force, they wrote, is a last resort.

“The reverence of human life is paramount,” the statement reads. “The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department strives to serve the community by protecting life, preventing crime, and maintaining a peaceful culture through respecting the humanity, dignity and constitutional rights of every person.”

To that end, the department mandates that whenever possible, officers must identify themselves as police and state their intention to shoot — neither of which happened in the Bufford case.

In his video interview with investigators, Roethlisberger indicated that he had undergone some type of counseling after the shooting, saying that he had spoken to his “shrink” about what happened.

click to enlarge Tammy Bufford poses for a portrait at the Bufford home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis. - MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • MICHAEL B. THOMAS FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • Tammy Bufford poses for a portrait at the Bufford home on May 16, 2021, in St. Louis.

You Better Not Shoot Him!

Today, there is one streetlight near the gangway where Bufford was slain, but it only sheds light on the pavement directly below it, not on the space between the two houses on Bates. At night, that space remains inky black and impenetrable to the eye.

“Can I see him? Let me identify him. Let me make sure that’s my son,” Tammy Bufford pleaded with officers on the night of December 12, 2019. She tried to cross over the police tape. They kept her away.

No one confirmed to the Buffords that the man killed by police was indeed Cortez until inadvertently, a day later, a detective called her, seeking information: “Do you have any witnesses? he asked. Do you have anything?

“First of all, I don’t have anything because you haven’t even verified whether or not it’s my son,” she told them. “So, you’re calling me on the phone talking about ‘let me verify some information,’ instead of saying, ‘Is that my son? Can I see him?’”

It wasn’t until Lt. John Green stepped in and asked Antoine Bufford to come to the station that police confirmed that Cortez was dead. The Buffords weren’t allowed to identify him at the morgue, they say. Instead, they had to wait even longer for the morgue to transport the body to the family funeral home. But Tammy and Antoine Bufford didn’t have to see their son to know what had happened to him.

Right after the shooting, Phillips came to their door. He told them: “The police just killed Cortez.”

Investigators never spoke to him on scene, even though they interviewed other earwitnesses. No one, not the police, not the Circuit Attorney’s Office, has ever reached out to Phillips, he said.

When he saw Roethlisberger, gun drawn, chasing a Black man, he didn’t realize at first that it was Cortez. Nonetheless, Phillips yelled out to try to stop what was about to happen: “Don’t shoot him!”

The last thing he saw was the two men disappearing into the darkness.

First published by The Intercept, in partnership with the Invisible Institute on May 29, 2021. Republished with permission from The Intercept, an award-winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter.

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