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Reflection on 2 St. Louis-area deaths at the hands of police

A Taser, with cartridge removed, making an electric arc between its two electrodes
jasonesbain | Wikipedia

About four months before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police less than 15 miles down I-70 in St. Charles shot another man named Brown. The event barely drew any attention from anyone except immediate family and friends.

The man killed was Martin Brown; Martin Brown is my brother.

What happened

St. Charles police were called to his home on Clark Court about 9 p.m. on April 16. One call came from his wife, and she said he needed a mental health evaluation. Another caller said the man was shooting fireworks and disturbing the neighbors. Police were told there were no weapons in the St. Charles man’s house. The fireworks complainant said, however, that the Brown had a “belligerent attitude and was pointing what looked like a large pistol.”

Within seven minutes of their arrival on the scene, one officer fired a failed Taser. Another repeatedly told Brown to drop the object in his hand and did not attempt a Taser shot. A third officer issued the same command, but did not fire a Taser. Less than three minutes after arriving on the scene, he had fired his SigSauer P226 nine times, and he was on the radio requesting an ambulance.

Martin Brown, 52, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Martin Brown was a brother, husband, father and grandfather. He had series of health problems in recent years. He had been drinking before the shooting. The medical examiner’s autopsy showed a blood alcohol level of 2.0, but no evidence of other drugs. St. Charles Police provided no records or reports of additional police incidents involving Brown.

All the details in this account of the incident were obtained through Missouri Sunshine Act requests to the city of St. Charles, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney and the St. Louis County medical examiner.

‘Suicide by cop’

The object in Brown’s hand was a Marksman Repeater BB gun. Officer Mike Davis signed a report that stated Martin Brown was attempting “suicide by cop.” Officer Mark Lane, in a signed statement, reported that he felt immediately in fear for his life, which is why he fired his weapon. Unlike Davis and Russell Sternberg, the other officers at the shooting, Officer Lane’s statement after the shooting was not videotaped. A written statement of Lane’s interview the afternoon after the shooting includes that he was told the object in Martin Brown’s hand was a dart gun. Lane was accompanied by Officer Julie Jackson, the department’s union representative and attorney Talmage E. Newtown.

Lane submitted a written statement five days later and noted being told the object was a dart gun, but added that could not be confirmed.

There is no video or audio record of the shooting. St Charles police cars are equipped with video cameras, but the gear shuts down when emergency lights and sirens are off.

Use of force

My personal respect for police was gained in part from training and service as a military policeman in the Illinois National Guard. My service came along side many full time police officers and a number of federal agents. I recognize the very stressful circumstances they confront.

The questionable use of lethal force was the subject of Assistant St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Carrie Barth’s 36-word report released in September 2014. It said Officer Lane’s action was appropriate. Besides paid administrative leave, there is no record of any disciplinary action, major medical treatment or retraining for Officer Lane.

The St. Charles County prosecuting attorney declined to state whether Barth knew Lane had shot and killed another Missourian with health problems in 2006. About that shooting, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney John P. “Jack” Banas concluded that questionable use of lethal force was appropriate.

Eyewitnesses submitted written accounts that say the officers used great restraint during their seven-minute encounter with Brown. There is no indication Brown posed any threat to neighbors. The officers appear to have been at least 30 feet from Brown during the incident according to a crude diagram of the scene. Officer Lane appears to have been shielded by his Tahoe squad car and more than 30 feet away.

St. Charles police or city officials have offered no explanation as why Officer Lane did not comply with the provisions of the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner that held deadly force can only be used to affect an arrest or prevent an escape unless the officer has probable cause to believe the person poses a threat of harm. ("...force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.") They have no explanation why Lane and another officer at the scene did not fire a Taser as Davis did.

Debate on police conduct

While the August shooting of Michael Brown triggered protests in Ferguson and beyond, the April shooting of Martin Brown has not. But a national debate has arisen since the shootings. Police conduct has come into question. There is more interest in requiring officers to wear video cameras in order to keep a record of their incidents.

There is also more interest in better reporting of shooting incidents involving police.

There is focus on police tactics and the elements that create these violent incidents.

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement questions how department evaluates situations where no death would have occurred but for the officer’s decisions, something referred to as “police created urgency.”

Had now -retired Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson not opted to create close contact to enforce jay walking or awaited back-up support when the jay walker became belligerent no death would have occurred.

Had St. Charles police fired additional Tasers or sought a mental health professional to negotiate – rather than employing questionable use of lethal force in three minutes – some might conclude no death would have occurred.

Policing police

The decision to share this incident in the context of the national debate was not made in haste. It seems worthwhile because it represents another incident where there was questionable use of lethal force. But the St. Charles shooting is not embroiled subsequent violent acts that have dominated considerable media attention. Those subsequent acts seem to impact any discussion or review of police conduct which is the actual core of these two issues.

Can police be trained to rethink their initial reactions in real time situations to evaluate options or employ less lethal alternatives?

Can those evaluations be done without putting officers in additional risk? That is a very important question. Police are trained to be wary of what might seem relatively safe events. Routine traffic stops and response to domestic disputes have consistently been found to be the types of calls that see the most incidents of injury to police.

Some can point to the increasing use of video tape in prisoner interrogation as a calming element that has led to fewer charges of violence-induced confessions. Some experts think police conduct or over reaction could be calmed with the awareness a video record. This applies to offenders as well.

Can every episode of questionable use lethal force be prevented? Probably not. But it seems like a worthwhile exercise to see if steps can be taken to address incidents witnessed in recent months.

Steven Brown has worked as an award winning journalist and public relations consultant for more than 40 years. He has a wide range of clients including the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. He grew up in St. Louis and resides in Illinois.

Correction: This commentary was originally published with a photo of a police car from St. Charles County. County officers were not involved in this case.