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Commentary: Seeing is only part of believing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - The case didn't quite garner the press coverage afforded the bin Laden raid or the royal wedding, but for a while it was a bona fide media sensation. During the early morning hours of last Jan. 1 (the post-champagne portion of New Year's Eve), a St. Louis cop was captured on video repeatedly striking a subject with his police baton and spraying him with pepper mace. The incident was photographed by a witness with a Smart Phone and posted on the Internet where it went viral, instantly becoming a YouTube favorite.

Media reaction was uniformly critical of the officer, Dustin Ries, who was in uniform working a second job at the time. The controversial footage was portrayed as yet further proof of the need for a civilian review board to rein in rogue cops. Complaints made against Ries five and seven years ago were resurrected to demonstrate that he was obviously an out-of-control psycho and a danger to the community.

For much of the next week, the video was a staple of local news broadcasts and the subject of innumerable calls to radio talk shows mulling the chronic problem of excessive force by the police. The case became the talk of the town. Even the mayor weighed in by commenting on his blog, "I cannot imagine anything that could have happened before (or after) the recorded incident to justify or explain the officer's actions."

Ries was subsequently taken off the street and assigned to administrative duties while the incident was investigated by the Internal Affair Unit and prosecutors contemplated whether criminal charges were appropriate. Along with the possibility of being fired and arrested, he could also be sued.

Last Friday -- 118 days after the toxic video was shot -- Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced that her office had determined criminal charges were in fact called for: She charged the putative victim of the assault, 21-year old William Ginger of Imperial, with misdemeanor assault on a law enforcement officer and cleared Officer Ries of any criminal wrongdoing.

That surprising reversal of fortunes merited a below-the-fold lead on page 1 of the Saturday Post-Dispatch. Full details of the story could be found on page 8. If the electronic media bothered to report the development, I missed the broadcast(s) but it certainly received nothing comparable to the breathless coverage of the original incident.

For those who bothered to view the video analytically, the officer's vindication was not wholly unanticipated because there were obvious discrepancies between the action shown and the supposed narrative of the event.

The video was shot from within a car parked on the lot of an all-night filling station. Because of that perspective, anything that took place below dashboard level was blocked from view.

It begins with Ries pulling Ginger away from an auto, after which a brief struggle ensues. The suspect subsequently drops to the ground -- and out of the picture -- after which the cop employs his baton and mace. Significantly, associates of the suspect are standing nearby, calmly watching the proceedings. They make no effort to physically or verbally intercede on their friend's behalf and don't appear to be particularly upset about what's taking place.

When the suspect re-enters the frame, he's handcuffed but appears to be neither bloodied nor broken. He's clearly able to walk under his own power as the officer escorts him into the filling station.

Those of us who are inclined to afford the police the benefit of doubt had one signature problem: The suspect was ultimately released rather than booked. Any time an officer uses physical force on a subject, he must prepare a report detailing the cause and nature of his actions and must arrest the subject for the criminal charges that necessitated said force. That's straight out of Basic Police Work 101. Yet, here's a veteran cop in a very public venue violating procedures that any rookie should understand. What gives?

Like most mysteries, this one was solved by investigation. Turns out the suspect's buddies approached Officer Ries and advised him that their friend was drunk but demanding to drive. At their behest, Ries interceded to prevent an accident.

The suspect was reportedly uncooperative and fell to the ground in the resulting struggle Once out of camera view, the suspect is said to have lunged at the officer's ankles in a move that the circuit attorney likened to a take-down maneuver in wrestling. Under these circumstances, the officer has two urgent priorities: to subdue his assailant and to protect his weapon. If he allows himself to be pulled to the deck, the playing field becomes all too level to do either reliably.

Once he had the suspect under control, 911 tapes confirm that Ries actually followed procedure by requesting a supervisor and prisoner conveyance to the scene. I'm told the responding sergeant surveyed the situation and made a command decision. The St. Louis Knife & Gun Club was out celebrating the holiday weekend. His district thus had a backlog of urgent calls pending and a dearth of officers to handle them. Here, he had a minor scuffle in which neither suspect nor cop was injured. Rather than tie up precious manpower, he directed that the prisoner be released on the condition that one of his sober friends drive him home.

And that is how a cop trying to pay a couple of bills by working security on New Year's Eve briefly became the local face of police-state repression. The adage has it that the picture is worth a thousand words. That may be true, but if you take the time to listen to the words, you may better understand what you're looking at.

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.