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Commentary: Dead man talking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2010 - Thursday, May 20, dawned in gloomy fashion. Low-flying clouds pelted pedestrians with a steady rain while they fought to maintain control of their umbrellas against gusty winds. Chilly and dark, the morning's weather was appropriately dismal for the sad task of remembering the 163 St. Louis police officers who have given their lives in line of duty.

As is customary at the annual downtown Memorial Breakfast, recently slain officers were commemorated by video presentations highlighting their lives and detailing the circumstances of their untimely deaths. Two young officers were so recognized. Both died in vehicular accidents.

Officer Julius Moore was killed while on an emergency run, responding to a burglary in progress in 2009. Officer David Haynes died during a high speed pursuit of yet another burglary suspect earlier this year. I knew neither of these fine young men personally.

The story of a third officer, Sgt. Jeffery Kowalski, was also presented. Jeff was a friend. The details of his death are all too familiar, but the time-line in which they played out is unique.

In February 1987, Jeff was a patrol officer in the 7th District. He was pursuing two armed-robbery suspects on foot when one of them turned and pointed a sawed-off rifle in his direction. As Jeff leveled his weapon at him, the second subject produced a previously concealed handgun and fired, inflicting a grievous abdominal wound. Jeff was able to return fire, twice wounding his assailant, before losing consciousness. Both suspects were subsequently arrested.

Although he was eligible for a disability pension, Jeff was determined to stay on the job. By September of the following year -- about 19 months later -- he'd recovered sufficiently to return to duty. He went on to serve another 10 years and was promoted to Sergeant before his deteriorating medical condition forced his retirement in 1999.

His wound had left him with a condition known as chronic recurrent pancreatitis, which -- as it often does -- ultimately progressed into the pancreatic cancer that took his life. He died on Oct. 1, 2008. Because of the time lapse between the incident and his death, Jeff wound up narrating his own memorial video. The effect was mesmerizing, surreal and heart-wrenching.

As a hushed banquet hall looked on, the tape of a 1993 interview with Jeff was played on two large video screens situated on either side of the podium. His outwardly normal appearance belying the mortal calamity of his internal injuries, he calmly recounted the details of that fateful night. Interspersed throughout his narration were the original crime scene photos.

Pictures of the dark parking lot, the rear entrance to the shabby apartment building, the bloody snow outlined by yellow police-line tape flashed on the screen while Jeff explained just who was where and who did what with almost clinical detachment.

His subdued recollections were almost phantasmagoric: the incoming gunfire kicking shards of sparkling ice before his eyes as it struck the frozen snow beside him; the rounds he dispatched in response appearing as streaks of fire that passed through his assailant before exploding into the brick wall behind him, then the all-engulfing blackness ...

It slowly dawned on members of the audience that they were watching a man conduct a guided tour of his own murder scene. The effect was unnerving to say the least and the hushed crowd dispersed reflectively at the conclusion of the ceremony -- fellow witnesses stirred from a waking dream that would linger throughout the morning.

Though police news would dominate the headlines that date, Jeff's poignant story was no where mentioned. Instead, we were treated to the Police Board's rendition of "The Night of the Long Knives."

The board consists of the city's mayor and four commissioners appointed by the governor. The gubernatorial appointees serve staggered terms of four years each, with one commissioner slated to be replaced each year. This arrangement was instituted to provide continuity of management while minimizing the influence of partisan politics on the process. As events from the day before the Memorial Breakfast demonstrate, it is not fool-proof.

By the time the previous governor, Republican Matt Blunt, left office, he'd appointed all four sitting members of the board. The new governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, was due one appointment during his first year in office. He chose Bettye Battle-Turner, the wife of a retired police lieutenant, for the post.

At the start of Nixon's second year, another commissioner's term expired. This time, he nominated Dr. Michael Gerdine, perhaps reasoning that a chiropractor was needed to straighten things out at 1200 Clark.

Before Gerdine could be confirmed by the state Senate, however, yet another seat opened up when a commissioner resigned amid allegations that he'd improperly interceded on behalf of a relative detained for suspicion of drunken driving.

The governor subsequently nominated Rich Gray, giving Nixon three appointments in just over a year. At the first meeting of the new board, the Democratic majority demonstrated its commitment to bipartisan public service by voting to oust Board President Todd Epsten -- the last remaining Blunt appointee -- despite the fact that he had nearly two years remaining on his term. Only the mayor backed the incumbent president.

Epsten was demoted to purchasing member, normally an entry-level position for the newest commissioner. Ironically, the beneficiary of the coup, new President Battle-Turner, could not serve in the position to which she'd relegated Epsten because her son is a civilian employee of the Purchasing Division and she thus has to recuse herself from any decisions involving that unit.

Let's see: The wife is the president of the Police Board, the husband is a member of the Police Pension Fund and the son is a civilian employee of the Police Department -- should the family adopt a dog, I suppose we'd have to expand the K-9 Unit.

At any rate, Epsten resigned in a huff, giving Nixon yet another appointment to make. The mayor is understandably irate that he was not notified, much less consulted, about these developments. As the elected representative of the city's residents, you'd think he'd at least merit the courtesy of a phone call. On the other hand, he'd earlier tried to wrest control of the department from the governor by legislative fiat and you know what they say about payback ...

For his part, the governor displayed the patented disingenuity of the seasoned political pro by denying any previous knowledge of the coup, but allowing that his staff may have been involved. The problem with that explanation is that it either means that the governor doesn't know what his subordinates are doing, or that he's so indifferent to the fate of the largest police department in the state that he didn't bother to ask.

So last week, while board members waged palace intrigue, the rank and file prepared to honor their dead. The astute observer was thus offered a rare glimpse of the conflicting realities of police work: the quiet heroism of those who have given everything contrasted with the petty posturing of those who take what they can get.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.