Don Re Can't Fix St. Louis' Policing Problems. But He's Trying to Teach the Officers Who Will 

click to enlarge Don Re

PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Don Re

Officer Don Re took one look at his comrade's uniform and felt hope drown in his gut. There was too much blood. The blue fabric – the same as Re's uniform – was splashed red from shoulder to belly. A dark stain dripped beneath the silver badge of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Re wasn't thinking in that moment of the officer's health. Despite the bloodstains, he would be fine, at least physically.

But there was a six-year-old boy on the hospital gurney, a badly wounded child who up until now had been resting in the officer's arms – that was a different story. That was the boy's blood.

The date was March 11, 2015. Gunfire had blasted out earlier that night following a seemingly minor argument between the little boy's father and an unidentified motorist near O'Fallon Park. Somehow, a disagreement about blocked traffic escalated to a rolling gun battle that sprayed bullets across blocks of West Florissant Avenue. One of those bullets found the small chest of the boy, Marcus Johnson, tucked away in the backseat of his parents' minivan.

The crime scene was a few blocks away from Re's regular patrol beat in north St. Louis, and after responding to the shooting he led a convoy of police vehicles clearing traffic in a desperate attempt to deliver the still-breathing child to the hospital.

A team of doctors and nurses took little Marcus, and Re and the other officers could only pace about the waiting room. Lost in worry, Re found himself staring at the officer's bloodied uniform. He thought about his own son, also six, who was probably asleep at home by now. Carefully, Re pulled out his phone and snapped a single picture.

It wasn't long before the doctors returned and told the assembled officers the news. Marcus Johnson was dead.

Re left the hospital with a head full of rage. After more than seventeen years as a city cop, he'd seen petty arguments turn into gun battles before, and he'd worked the Sixth District of north city long enough to witness the worst kinds of human wreckage – but this was something else. A little kid is bleeding out in a minivan? Really? Is that where we're at?

click to enlarge After a tragic night, Don Re snapped this photo of an officer's bloodied uniform. "This is what a good policeman looks like," he wrote on Facebook. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DON RE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF DON RE
  • After a tragic night, Don Re snapped this photo of an officer's bloodied uniform. "This is what a good policeman looks like," he wrote on Facebook.

Re, 42, managed to keep his cool through a few more dispatch calls, a stolen bike and a car accident. He finished the shift and got home after 11 p.m.

Then he grabbed some beers, opened his laptop and logged into his personal blog, Don of All Trades. He started to write. And write. He hit publish at 2:43 a.m.

The blog post, titled "A senseless death," described Re's rush to the hospital and the unnamed officer carrying Johnson to the emergency room. It also included Re's photo of the cop's bloody uniform.

"It was hard for the officer," Re wrote in the post, "because he did the best he could and it wasn't going to be enough. It was hard for me, because I have a son about that age at home and couldn't imagine anything like this happening to him. It was awkward because we were all hoping, but we also knew that it was going to take a miracle for that boy to live. He was not granted that miracle."

Perhaps the hardest part of that night was pretending to care about a stolen bike and car accident long enough to write the incident reports. He had wanted to scream, "At least you didn't die at six years old from a bullet through your chest!" But that wouldn't be professional.

It was the post's final, brutal lines that seemed reflect the emotions of a city exhausted by an endless churn of guns and death. Over the next few days, those lines would be read and shared by the chief of police, every TV news station in St. Louis and hundreds of thousands of people on social media.

"I'm looking at my own six year old's homework folder," Re wrote, "and wondering if this dead boy has a homework folder in a backpack never to be turned in again. Will his mom see it when she gets home and cry? Did he have a lunch packed for the next day that will still be in the fridge this weekend to remind his family of a lunch that was never taken to school? Did he go to kindergarten? Will somebody have to explain to his classmates that they'll never see this little guy alive again and why?"

Re concluded:

"This is all too sad and it needs to stop. Someone please figure out how."

Marcus Johnson's death marked St. Louis' 24th homicide of 2015, and the meaningless horror of the shooting drew further attention to the city's enduring struggle with violence. It was early March, barely three months into the year, and St. Louis was already on its way to recording its highest murder rate in decades. As in past years, most of the homicides were clustered in poor, majority black communities in the north.

Re spent more than a year patrolling those same hard-hit areas. Raised in south city, Re had spent his formative years playing in soccer tournaments and listening to his father's stories about breaking up bar fights as a St. Louis cop in the 1970s. In his father's telling, being a cop was all about camaraderie and excitement. The reality, as Re found, could be much different.

In writing about Johnson's final moments, Re didn't resort to "thin blue line" grandstanding or sound bites; he didn't blame the violence on absent fathers, rap lyrics or imply that a "thug culture" was corrupting young black men. He didn't say anything glib about all lives mattering. Re just sounded like a human being who was trying to understand why bad things happen to innocent people, and specifically why some asshole decided to shoot up a minivan for nothing.

The next morning, March 12, Re rolled out of bed at 7 a.m. to make his morning shift working security at an apartment complex. Around noon, he got an unexpected call from the St. Louis police's public information division.

Re later learned that Sam Dotson, the city's police chief, had read and enjoyed his blog post. Dotson even tweeted about it.

"I was half expecting them to say that you can't be writing stories about the police department," Re recalls. Instead, he was asked if the department could share his post on the official SLMPD Facebook page.

That request was followed by calls from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which reprinted the blog post in full, taking up an entire page in the next day's print edition. Local TV news stations took notice as well, followed by People. By day's end, Re says the post had been viewed more than 300,000 times.

click to enlarge In North Pointe, Don Re's former beat, residents are fed up with violence and death. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In North Pointe, Don Re's former beat, residents are fed up with violence and death.

"It was almost too much attention," Re says now. The blog, he insists, was never supposed to be any sort of behind-the-badge soapbox, and he can still hardly believe that politicians and community activists – not to mention his boss – were actually tweeting and discussing the product of his late-night boozy writing session.

"I never intended to write anything about the police department. Mostly it was just a journal on my family, to keep tabs on my life, to get a few laughs," he says. "If I've ever spent more than an hour on a blog post I'd be shocked. Most of that time would be spent just getting up to get another beer."

But Chief Dotson says he found the blog compelling.

"It was moving, it really was," he says. "He has a unique way of capturing the emotions that police officers see far too frequently. It shows a side of police officers that doesn't get portrayed at all. Police officers are human beings, they have families, children, they have emotions just like everybody else."

Many times, though, they just don't share that side. "Police officers are naturally internal people," Dotson observes.

Re started the blog in 2012, and its first year mostly chronicled the antics of raising three young kids while trying to remain (generally) sane and married. Basically, he was a daddy blogger. One early blog post, for example, concerned Re's toddler-age son asking him why he was so fat. That post was accompanied by a picture of Re – a nominally grumpy cop built like Fred Flintstone – riding his daughter's pink Barbie bicycle down the street with a madman's grin plastered on his face.

"It wasn't too often that someone I knew would read it," he admits. He seems almost bashful when estimating his early audience at around only a few hundred hits a week.

It wasn't until the Ferguson protests in 2014 that Re allowed his blog life and cop life to intersect.

Triggered by a fatal encounter between a black teenager named Michael Brown and Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, the summer protests unleashed a long-overdue reckoning between the region's various police departments and an increasingly influential coalition of residents, activists and politicians.

Although Re himself wasn't among the metro cops deployed to assist Ferguson that summer, he says he couldn't simply ignore the messages blaring at him on the TV.

"There seems to be a perception, outside of this area, that it's a war zone here, that the whole region is in shambles," he wrote in an August 19 post. "I can see how a person might think such a thing. I mean, God forbid the national media folks take their cameras outside of the immediate area where all the trouble is happening to see that life is still being lived by decent folks, even just outside of Ferguson."

Here too, Re wasn't penning polemics. He didn't weigh in on whether Michael Brown had his hands up. The writing wandered, as if following Re's own undirected musings. He wrote about the group of boys he'd spotted playing basketball against a bare rim in north city, a young mother with hungry children huddled against the cold, and following a trail of blood up to an open front door. Amid the hurt were moments of small unrehearsed kindnesses, like buying a basketball net or comping a hot meal. This was Re's vision of good police work.

"Something has to change, and change for the better," he wrote, wrapping up the post. "Shame on all of us, if we let this pass and we don't become better people for having endured it. That'd be a real shitter."

The post attracted its share of attention, and for the first time Re found himself running into cops who read the blog as well. One of Re's squad partners, a young officer named Ryan Kotaska, remembers pulling twelve-hour shifts with the grumpy older cop and discussing the blog.

"We talked all the time," Kotaska says. "A lot of it was about how you're not going to change the world by arresting someone with some dope or heroin. Especially in these neighborhoods where there's not a whole lot of good going on. Don had a way with people, the way he talked to them. There's lot to be said about making people comfortable to talk to you."

Kotaska wasn't the only one who had noticed Re's writing or his abilities as a communicator. In the days after his blog post about Marcus Johnson went viral, Re applied for and interviewed for a teaching position with the police academy. The transfer order came down in April, and just like that, Re was headed to the classroom.

West Florissant Avenue passes through the shadows of many deaths, not just Marcus Johnson's. Jutting northwest from its downtown origin, the street borders the grand sprawl of the Bellefontaine and Calvary cemeteries, where tombstones and monuments smoothed by time peek behind tree cover at the zooming traffic.

"I enjoy Calvary Cemetery. It's got a lot of history," Re says during a late December drive though the surrounding neighborhoods. "Cars crash through the fence all the time. The fence takes a beating, weekly, definitely monthly. Sometimes the drivers are drunk."

Because he's now based downtown, this is Re's first visit to this stretch of West Florissant since his transfer to the police academy.

For Re, more memories are lurking here. He recalls the hardened criminals and the drunk oafs who taught him to notice certain behaviors, patterns in the north city noise – like the out-of-place white guy who today is wearing a Blues cap and camouflage vest, leaning against a car with a tallboy of Bud Light in his hand.

"He's buying drugs, no doubt about it," Re says, taking a right turn on a residential street in Baden. "He'll say he was being profiled, but you know, a white guy with Illinois plates? That's pretty typical."

With his move to the police academy, Re doesn't get to flex those crime-spotting instincts much anymore. (Then again, he can't turn them off, either.)

Re says it wasn't his blog's success that drove his move from beat patrol to teacher. In fact, he says that a police commander had reached out in 2014 to express surprise that Re – who is also a licensed attorney and worked six years in the department's legal division – was out on the streets with the young guys in the Sixth District. Re suggests his transfer was part of the normal ebb and flow of police personnel.

"I don't really miss it, I'm not going to lie to you," he says of his old beat. "I don't really miss taking radio calls. Trust me, if I wanted to stay in the Sixth District, I could have stayed."

The Sixth District patrol is no easy assignment. Baden, which had been Re's primary beat, comprises little more than a square mile of real estate, but still managed to register more than 50 murders since 2008.

North city isn't all wasteland, though. Just one neighborhood over, in North Pointe, Re remarks on the tidy houses and well-kept lawns.

But even a nicely maintained neighborhood like North Pointe must contend with the area's violence. A dozen or so of those tidy lawns bear signs that read, "We Must Stop Killing Each Other."

"Honestly, I think it's ridiculous that we have to have signs like that," Re says as he drives past. "To me it just seems like it's more talk, and I'm tired of talk."

Re parks at Gregg's Bar and Grill, his usual lunch spot during his days patrolling north city. The interior is buzzing with chit-chat from its blue-collar customers, and the owner, a towering man in a button-down shirt, clasps Re on the shoulder like an absent old friend.

"Last night," the owner says, "at about 6:05, we heard six shots,"

"Six shots?" Re says, chuckling, as if acting out a familiar bit. "That's not too bad, not too bad."

For Re, places like Gregg's remind him of the camaraderie between officer and citizen, the kind of interactions that might be more common if not for the spread of police brutality videos and nationwide protests.

In the 1990s, before Re entered the police academy, Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles raised similar tensions. Still, the scrutiny that officers faced day-to-day on the job was nothing compared to the criticism of the present, with its ubiquitous camera phones and online commentary.

The adjustment has not been easy.

"Older policemen, we're a very funny group. Very naturally defensive, we don't take accusations well, we don't like to be told what to do," he says. "But you get this 'everyone is against us' mindset. We should remember, especially these young policeman, that most of the people out here respect the job you do. Don't fuck it up if you can help it."

It's a difficult mindset to maintain, especially for officers who don't yet have the street smarts it's taken Re years to learn. He's seeing officers burning out on frustration, attaining levels of crankiness in two years previously only reached after fifteen grinding on the force.

That's not to say Re is an apologist for the police department. ("We fuck up, we do," he says.) But Re is faced with preparing the next generation of St. Louis officers, and they won't have the luxury of learning slowly – not when any mistake could be live-streamed or uploaded to YouTube.

"The trainees understand the new environment of policing, the riots, all the kind of protesting – that's just something they know is going to be part of their careers. I think they're more nervous about doing the wrong thing than I was when I came in."

That was more than seventeen years ago, but for Re, it feels like a bygone era.

"It was a bigger joke when I was in the academy," he says. "The old guys would say, 'Whatever you learn in the academy is a bunch of bullshit; you come out here and we'll teach you how to be a policeman.'"

click to enlarge As a police academy instructor, Re must translate his street experience into classroom lessons — no easy task. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • As a police academy instructor, Re must translate his street experience into classroom lessons — no easy task.

On a Wednesday afternoon, 30-something students dressed in blazers and khakis file into Re's classroom, which is located within the harshly lit innards of the downtown police academy. It's a diverse group in terms of age, gender and race. They all address Re as "sir." Like many classrooms in America, the day's lesson begins with several minutes of Re fumbling with the overhead projector.

This is only Re's second class of trainees, but it doubles the size of the one that graduated three months ago. Today, he's talking about scenarios for consent searches.

"So you're in a house lawfully because you got a call for a domestic," Re begins. "Let's say a woman called and says my husband is beating my ass, and the dispatcher tells you the call was cut off, that's all we've got. When you get to the door and a guy says there's no woman here, you're going in that house to make sure."

Re fields several what-if questions from his students. Then a male student raises his hand.

"In the scenario where a guy is beating the wife and you ask if he has drugs or guns in the house, what if she's the one who shows them to you, can you charge her for those? How do you know if the stuff is hers or his?"

In the real world, that's not how Re would handle the scenario. But this is what hypothetical questions are for. A teachable moment, they call it.

"Well," Re says, "you're going to have to figure it out. If you want to lock a victim of domestic abuse up for drugs while she's bloody and crying, go for it. You won't be my partner, I would wash my hands of you."

But these scenarios are never simple. Theoretically, Re says, an arrest could be justified if it was unavoidably apparent that the woman had a stash of drugs.

"It's not a trick," he says, thinking aloud. "You are asking if there are drugs in the house. If she points you to drugs that are in her purse, then shame on her for being an idiot. But it happens. It does. Maybe it's her drugs, or maybe not."

Re pauses, as if running through a dozen more possibilities through his cop brain. He sighs.

"This will make more sense in the context of being out on the street than it does in the classroom," he says.

There's only so much that Re can teach the trainees, and at moments like this it seems like very little indeed. Balancing someone's constitutional rights against, say, a rapidly escalating domestic situation is a lot of responsibility. For Re, it requires a nuanced understanding of power and application of law. And when reality is bearing down, a cop might be presented with more than one moral quandary.

That's why Re doesn't like watching videos of police shootings. There are too many unseen variables at play, he says, too much going on in the officer's head in the moment.

However, Re made an exception for the recently released video of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke pumping bullets into the prone body of seventeen year old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

McDonald had been armed with a knife and toxicology reports indicated he had PCP in his system. But video of the shooting, released under a court order in November, definitively contradicted the officer's claim that the teen had lunged at him with the knife. Citing the video, prosecutors charged the officer with murder.

"It looks like a bad shooting to me," Re wrote in a November 24 blog post. "But I've not heard what the other side has to say about it. What was the officer's reasoning? If he says he was in fear of his life, who are you to say that he wasn't?"

The post, titled "Murder and deadly force are different," seemed to track Re's conflicted feelings about the shooting. The piece reads like a cop psychoanalyzing himself into a brick wall.

"There is a difference," he wrote, "between grabbing a gun and intentionally finding a target to kill and then killing him," and "being thrust into a tense situation because it's your job and using deadly force because you thought you had to."

Yet, he continues, that doesn't excuse the officer.

"[Van Dyke] will have to answer for what he did, and I'm okay with that. I am glad that there was video, the police department's video I might add. He will have to go through what he was thinking and convince a judge or jury that he didn't murder that kid, and honestly, he might be able to, because it's a tough case to convince a jury that a police officer murdered an armed person."

The post goes back and forth, toggling between Re's misgivings about charging an officer with murder and his own horror at the filmed death of a teenager.

"I'm just playing devil's advocate here, but the truth is, I don't know, and neither do you," he wrote. "Same on the other side of the argument as well. Well intentioned people who support the police are doing the same thing, spouting off that the kid had a knife and was on PCP. They'll say he deserved to die because he didn't listen to the police. It's not that simple either folks."

Re doesn't pretend to have the answers. But he does know one thing. At the end of the day, the climate of knee-jerk suspicion is making life in St. Louis worse for everyone. If people think cops are demons with badges, intent on lynching minority residents, how can police solve crimes and support communities?

"I don't know how we get that trust back, is what I'm saying," Re says. "Maybe we never had it. Somewhere in the middle is the truth."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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