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'As soon as the lights went out, it was insane' | Officer describes chaos during downtown St. Louis riots

A St. Louis police officer shares harrowing experience amidst chaos during riots

ST. LOUIS — Dumpsters. Concrete barriers. Brick walls connected to some fencing.

Those items became the shields that may have saved the lives of about 20 St. Louis police officers downtown Monday night and into the early morning hours Tuesday after peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd turned violent.

St. Louis officer Jay Schroeder was among them.

“We had to pull a police car down and get behind the engine block. We had to move some dumpsters into the street to take cover,” he said. “We had some concrete barricades and barriers, I guess from a loading dock, and then we were using brick structures that were holding a fence.

“We had about 20 policemen taking cover wherever they could. It was insane. And they were actively shooting for a half hour. I had some people that were military vets that were in our group and they said it was like being in Iraq, without the protection.”

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Schroeder said he and the others felt safe to emerge from their makeshift bunker in the area of Washington and Tucker when the county and city SWAT teams arrived and used tear gas.

“That was the only way we were getting out. I mean, they were moving around us. They were moving in and out of cars firing rounds. If we wouldn't have had their response, we would have been stuck there I don't know how long and somebody, I mean a policeman, was going to get hurt. They were definitely trying to hurt policemen.”

Four city police officers were shot.

St. Louis County officers returned fire on a car that had fired at other city police officers.

And countless other officers were shot at throughout the city and county.

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“We’ll never know exactly how many rounds were fired at us,” Schroeder said. “Anytime the police showed up, rounds were being fired."

Schroeder said officers did their best to handle whatever crimes they saw going on in front of them.

“When things go chaotic like that, you just try to grab whatever crime, you can see in front of you and try to hold the line until you can get somebody there to take them to the Justice Center. We could have made 2,000 arrests last night.”

But instead, there were 26 – the person, or people, who shot four of Schroeder’s fellow city police officers not long before he took cover, remains at large.

“It's scary,” he said. “I mean, that's the thing when you're riding downtown and you're just going from point to point you don't know if this is the guy that's going pop around the corner and start firing an assault rifle. 

"You can dodge a brick. You can try to get out of the way of a Molotov cocktail, but you can't dodge bullets and that's the scary part because you don't know where it's coming from. I mean, there's people running around hanging out of cars with firearms and assault weapons driving around downtown everywhere. You just don’t know where that next bullet is going to come from.”

Schroeder is the president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. He’s been an officer for 20 years.

He is a member of the city’s downtown bike unit.

And he’s been there when St. Louis has erupted in violent protests before.

But this week was different, he said.

“I was out there every day in Ferguson. I was out there every day for Stockley, I don't think I've missed a protest in six years,” he said. “This has been unprecedented.”

Schroeder said the night started out peaceful as an estimated 2,000 people marched downtown but turned violent after sunset.

“As soon as the lights went out, it was insane,” he said.

RELATED: 4 St. Louis police officers shot during violent riots near downtown

The use of tear gas in downtown St. Louis is also a rarity. 

"We've never had anything like that downtown where we've had to go to that length to protect businesses, residents," Schroeder said. "Downtown is covered in tear gas right now. 

"And that was just to survive, mean it was they were they were putting tear gas out to keep people from getting killed."

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Schroeder said the violence has been escalating steadily for the past week ever since news of George Floyd’s death during an arrest attempt in Minneapolis broke.

“I wasn't in Minneapolis when that happened, but it didn't seem like it looked right to me,” Schroeder said. “I get it, and policemen, that's not us.

“Just like they say rioters aren't part of the protests, don't label the whole group period there because that's not every policeman across the country. We’re out there trying to do the best job we can. And we condemn officers when they do wrong, just like the protesters should condemn rioters that are hanging in their group when they do wrong.”

Schroeder said the police union is working on a list of needs officers have, and urges anyone from the public who wants to help support officers to contact the St. Louis Police Officers Association.