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Commentary: Echoes Of Gunfire -- A Man Dead, FBI To Investigate Police

The logo of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as displayed on a patrol car.
(St. Louis Public Radio)
The logo of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as displayed on a patrol car.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the words “legal” and “wise” are not synonyms. It would be legal, for instance, to install aluminum siding on my brick home but that would probably not be a wise course of action. Just because there is no legal barrier to doing something, it does not necessarily follow that it’s a good idea to do so.

That rather obvious observation came to mind when I read recently of the troubling case of one Cary Ball. Mr. Ball, 25, was killed by the St. Louis police last April. Two officers shot him a total of 21 times, which is a lot of shooting. Facts surrounding the incident, as reported, are at once both clear-cut and conflicting.

It is known that Ball was an ex-con. He served three years in prison for a series of business robberies in Florida. While confined, he earned a GED and was granted early release, after which he returned to his home town of St. Louis.

In September 2008, he was at a family party when somebody opened fire, wounding four people including Ball. At the time, he reportedly told his brother, Carlos, “I never want to be shot again without being able to shoot back.”

The following year, a cop stopped him for a traffic violation and found him to be in possession of a gun. He was subsequently returned to prison until May of 2012. Once back out, Ball enrolled at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park to study social work. He also got a job.

At about 9:45 p.m. on April 24, he was driving a co-worker home from their shift in the laundry at Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur. The co-worker, Ernest Robinson, said he did not know Ball well and had no idea that he was armed.

According to Robinson, Ball appeared to grow nervous when a patrol car pulled behind them in the vicinity of 18th and Delmar. When the officers attempted to curb the vehicle for turning without signaling, Ball told Robinson he wasn’t going to stop although the latter man urged him to.

A brief chase ensued, which culminated with Ball crashing into several parked autos at Ninth and Cole. The car’s airbags deployed. Ball crawled over Robinson and escaped via the passenger front window.

A foot pursuit followed during which officers report seeing him with a gun in his hand. Some civilian witnesses claim to have seen him running with a limp while holding a gun; others state he ran normally with nothing in his hands.

In either event, police recovered a loaded .40 Glock from him after the shooting. The gun had been reported stolen from a parked car downtown in September of the year before.

It is a federal crime for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. That offense is compounded by the fact that the weapon was stolen, which constitutes an additional state felony. There’s also the fact that the officers report that Ball pointed the gun at them, thus adding First Degree Assault, Unlawful Use of a Weapon and Armed Criminal Action to the litany of transgressions. And, of course, there’s also the matter of reckless driving and the attendant traffic charges…           

Though there’s little doubt of Ball’s legal culpability, the case has spawned controversy fuelled, in part, by the number of shots the cops fired. His mother states she canvassed the neighborhood after the incident and “everybody” told her Ball had dropped his gun and was raising his arms in surrender when the police opened fire. Other witnesses now claim the officers stood over him and shot him execution-style.

I must note that I am a retired city cop and a legacy member of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. My sympathies generally trend toward the police. I should also mention that I have not talked with anybody involved in the shooting or its investigation — like Will Rogers, I only know what I read in the papers, which is where the account above has been reported.

That said, an examination of the available facts casts doubt on the credibility of the late-arriving witnesses. If, for some mysterious reason, two cops decided to execute a man who was a total stranger to them two minutes earlier, would they really choose to commit the crime on a public street in a populated area at 9:45 on a spring evening?

Admittedly, the number of shots fired seems excessive — in retrospect. City cops carry 92 series Beretta 9mm’s. When fully loaded, these weapons hold 16 rounds and are designed for rapid fire. Modern officers need this style of sidearm because their adversaries have them. Indeed, the Glock Ball carried has a similar capacity and fires an even more potent round than the police issue.

As Chief Sam Dotson pointed out, officers are trained to shoot until the threat has abated. In the heat of combat, it doesn’t take long for two cops to discharge 21 rounds.

At any rate, the shooting was found to be justified by investigators from the Homicide Section and the Internal Affairs Unit. The circuit attorney’s office reviewed the case file and agreed with its findings.

Normally, that would conclude the criminal inquiry. But responding to continued protests of police critics, Chief Dotson has now asked the FBI to conduct a federal investigation.

Because of a 60s-era statute, it is a federal crime to deprive someone of their civil rights while “acting under color of law.” Police actions can thus be subject to federal review. The chief’s unusual request was legal but I’m not sure it was wise.

I suspect the chief expects his men to be exonerated, and I understand that he must consider the concerns of the whole community when governing the department.  But subjecting the officers to yet another level of scrutiny 10 months after the fact has to have a chilling effect on the force in general. Just as law-abiding taxpayers dread the prospect of an IRS audit, cops don’t enjoy being read their rights by the FBI.

Press reports stress that Ball had enrolled in community college and was gainfully employed. Fair enough. He was also, however, an ex-con with a loaded gun on the streets of a city plagued by violent crime.  I wonder if it’s wise to encourage police officers to ignore such things.

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.