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

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

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