FLORISSANT, Mo. — The amount of information the public has learned about the night a Florissant police officer struck a man with his police SUV has been unprecedented.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the situation, it happened June 2 in Dellwood – a small town neighboring Florissant. Three Florissant officers in an unmarked SUV said they were trying to pull over a black Dodge Charger because police say it matched the description of a car wanted in connection to a shots fired incident in Ferguson three days before.
Residential surveillance cameras captured the vehicle pull onto a street, and its driver and passenger jumped out of the car and ran, leaving the car still rolling. A backseat passenger then got out and started to run across the street when a Florissant police SUV swerved and struck him.
Prosecutors said that swerve was intentional.
The officer’s attorney said he was trying to avoid colliding with the car and struck the man “accidentally.”
The Facebook page RealSTLNews posted the footage June 6.
That night, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell confirmed one of his staff members was related to one of the officers involved in the incident, so he asked St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar to act as a special prosecutor.
Lohmar said the footage was “shocking” on the night the story broke.
Florissant Police Chief Timothy Fagan held a press conference and announced an internal investigation was underway and that all three officers involved had been suspended, and he asked the St. Louis County Police Department to conduct a criminal investigation. He also said he was unaware of the use-of-force incident because there was a breakdown in communication within the department.
I had to take a moment to note that in my nearly 20 years of reporting – most of which has involved law enforcement – this stands out as among the most amount information officials have released publicly in such a short amount of time.
It’s a welcome trend that’s been steadily continuing since Ferguson.
Former St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar frequently spoke about how he regretted not releasing more information about the shooting.
But releasing information quickly about use-of-force also brings police and prosecutors out of their comfort zone.
Police want to be guarded about their findings so they don’t jeopardize an investigation. They don’t want someone to claim they are a witness to something simply by using information they learned about the case in the news.
Prosecutors don’t want to give away their evidence to the defense.
And they don’t want to get something wrong if the investigation shows their original statements were inaccurate.
All are understandable points, but there has to be a middle ground.
Police can’t kill someone, or try to, without having to explain why – immediately.
Their commanders must explain whether they believe the force was justified.
And they must expect to be questioned.
Apparently, Fagan got that memo.
Four days after the video was released, Fagan had another press conference, this time to announce the officer who drove the SUV had been fired and he released his name.
This week, Lohmar and Fagan stood side-by-side as Lohmar announced he had charged the officer, Joshua Smith, with first-degree assault, armed criminal action and fourth-degree assault.
They stood there for about 30 minutes and answered every question.
Lohmar also criticized the attorneys representing the man who was struck by the police SUV.
That man has still not been identified, but his attorneys, Jermaine Wooten and Jerryl Christmas, have spoken on his behalf. They also released a second view of the moment their client got hit the day before the officer was charged. They said it proved that the only charges that the officer should be charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action.
Lohmar said their decision to release that video may have jeopardized their client’s right to a fair trial as well as the officer’s, and added that he told the victim’s attorneys the charges he would be issuing in the case before they publicly demanded he do so.
While all of the information that has come out about this case as fast as it has is enlightening, it will also put the pretrial publicity argument officials typically use to prevent the release of information to the test.
The officer’s attorney is Scott Rosenblum. He’s been around for decades. He knows his way around the justice system. He could easily seek a change of venue and argue pre-trial publicity has affected his client’s right to a fair trial.
A jury other than St. Louis County residents will decide this officer’s fate.
Attorneys have told me that juries in outstate Missouri are known to be more favorable to law enforcement. And they’re much less likely to be diverse.
Juries in the city, and those closer to the city, are thought to be more likely to be diverse and objective when it comes to law enforcement.
And for all of the information that we have learned about this incident, many questions still remain.
I’ve been told the ones I’ve asked are still under investigation – in other words, they don’t know yet.
If police and prosecutors continue to be as forthcoming with information as they have been so far, hopefully those questions get answered soon.
But would they have been answered at all without the release of the video?
Watch for Christine Byers' column every Friday. She will go beyond the headlines of the top stories in St. Louis.
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