A “friendly fire” incident in which an off-duty St. Louis policeman was shot while coming to the aid of fellow officers has taken on racial overtones after an incendiary claim by the injured officer’s attorney: The officer was viewed as a threat because he was black.
The St. Louis Police Department has not identified any of the officers involved in Wednesday night’s incident. The officer who shot the off-duty policeman is white. All seven officers involved are on administrative leave as the department sorts out what happened.
What is known is that officers with an anti-crime task force were tracking a car that was stolen from the Maryland Heights community after its license plate had been detected by an automatic reader Wednesday night, acting police Chief Lawrence O’Toole told reporters.
During the chase, the armed men inside the car opened fire.
Officers fired back, hitting one of the suspects in the ankle during the ensuing exchange. The vehicle ultimately crashed in a neighborhood on the north side of the city and the suspects jumped out and ran, police said. The man shot in the ankle was quickly arrested, along with a teenager who was caught after a brief chase. A third suspect — who police believed was armed — got away and remained at large Sunday.
An off-duty officer who lives nearby heard the commotion, grabbed his service pistol and headed to the scene to assist his fellow officers. He arrived as the other officers were carrying out the arrest.
The other officers ordered the off-duty officer to the ground, then recognized him as a fellow policeman and told him to stand up and walk toward them.
As he approached, another officer arrived and shot the off-duty officer in the arm, “apparently not recognizing” him, police told the Associated Press.
The black officer, who is 38 years old and an 11-year veteran of the force, was treated at a local hospital and released. The shooter, a 36-year-old officer who has been on the force for eight years, told investigators he had feared for his safety.
But Rufus Tate Jr., the black officer’s attorney, took issue with that claim, saying his client complied with the other officers’ commands and was never a threat.
“In the police report, you have so far, there is no description of threat he received,” he told St. Louis Fox-affiliate KTVI. “So we have a real problem with that. But this has been a national discussion for the past two years. There is this perception that a black man is automatically feared.”
Tate said the incident was a case of “a black professional, in law enforcement, himself being shot and treated as an ordinary black guy on the street. This is a real problem.”
The St. Louis area was once the epicenter of the nation’s ongoing debate about whether police are too quick to use deadly force against minorities.
On Tuesday, a federal judge awarded $1.5 million to the parents of Michael Brown, according to the Associated Press. Brown, 18, was unarmed on Aug. 9, 2014, when he was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in Ferguson, about 20 minutes from St. Louis.
Months of protests followed Brown’s shooting. Ultimately, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation unearthed bias in the criminal justice system in Ferguson, although Wilson was never criminally charged.
Wilson resigned in November 2014, and Brown’s parents sued the city.
But Brown’s killing was just one of many such incidents. In Minnesota last summer, Philando Castile was shot after a police officer pulled him over for a broken brake light. And a North Charleston police officer recently pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge after he shot and killed 50-year-old Walter Scott, an unarmed motorist, as he was running away.
So far this year, 461 people have been shot and killed by police officers, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings. Nearly a quarter of them were black.
In 2016, 963 people were killed by police. Twenty-four percent were black.