While the nation’s attention is turned to the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, people may have missed another police brutality trial involving a black victim taking place in St. Louis. Yesterday, the jury in that trial failed to deliver justice.
In this case, the victim wasn’t killed, but beaten to a pulp by three St. Louis cops. The twist in this story is that the victim, St. Louis Police Detective Luther Hall, was himself a police officer working undercover.
Hall told jurors last week that he had a hole in his lip, and pain in his head, jaw, back and neck after the attack. He lost 20 pounds because he couldn’t eat solid food for weeks, and a ruptured gall bladder later led to chronic pancreatitis. He also had spinal surgery, with two damaged discs in his neck replaced by titanium and cadaver bone.
Again, Detective Hall was on the job when he was assaulted. He was working undercover during protests of another miscarriage of justice, the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who had shot and killed a black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, in 2011.
When the 2017 incident began, Hall didn’t immediately reveal himself to be an undercover cop because he was trying to do his job.
Hall, who had been recording criminal activity during the protests, became separated from his partner while fleeing officers who were firing pepper-spray pellets and bean bag rounds into the crowd.
The assistant US attorney Carrie Costantin told the jurors that as Hall was complying with orders to get on the ground, he was knocked down, hit, picked up and knocked down again before being attacked with fists, feet and a baton.
Hall said he did not push, fight or pull away from the officers. He said he was stunned.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he told the jury.
Let us be clear that what happened in St. Louis in September 2017 after Stockley’s acquittal was a police riot. I wrote about it at the time; see Police Brutality in St. Louis.
It appears that last Sunday night, some vandals broke some windows and flower pots, and the police conducted a sweep that covered several blocks. Among those arrested were an undercover cop, who was beaten by his own “brothers.” Another was an air force lieutenant who was standing outside his home, watching. Another was a photojournalist working on assignment from Getty Images. Another was one of the stage crew for U2, scheduled to give a concert on September 16, who got caught in the sweep when he stepped out of a bar.
That incident began when two uniformed officers near the protest ordered the man to show his hands, sources said. When he refused, they knocked him down and hit him at least three times and zip tied his hands behind his back. When he stood up, his mouth was bloodied, the sources said.
Commanders the next day told the officers they had arrested one of their own.
Detective Hall wasn’t the only one brutalized:
A documentary filmmaker from Kansas City, visiting with his wife, said he was knocked unconscious during the sweep. Drew Burbridge, 32, said he never heard orders to disperse until officers started to advance, banging their batons and chanting, “Move back.”
“I turned my camera off and asked if there was anywhere I could go, but I was denied the right to leave,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of this.”
Officers ordered him to turn his camera off and get down on the ground, and he complied.
“The only thing I cared about then was putting my arms around my wife,” he said. “I just, I just kept saying: ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
Burbridge said officers then grabbed him by both his arms and dragged him away.
“I just said: ‘I am a member of the media, I am not protesting, I am not resisting,’” Burbridge said.
An officer sprayed his face with a chemical, his head was forced into the ground and an officer ripped his camera from his neck.
Burbridge claims his hands were then bound by zip ties before two officers started kicking him in the back, neck, arm and legs while he lay restrained on the ground. He said he was knocked unconscious on the pavement for about 10 to 30 seconds.
After he came to, Burbridge said an officer lifted his head by his hair and pepper sprayed him in the face again.
Many people — including onlookers and passers-by — complained that the cops told them to disperse but then wouldn’t let them leave.
We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in “their” city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities.
Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that “we owned the night.” Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.
Back to Detective Luther Hall, who ended up having to conduct his own investigation into what had happened to him that night. The trial began brilliantly when an all-white jury was seated. At some point a white juror left because of a “family emergency” and was replaced by a black alternate juror. Possibly someone realized the optics were bad.
The defendants were former officers Dustin Boone and Christopher Myers and current officer Steven Kortebut. Two others cops involved in the incident, Randy Hays and Bailey Colletta had pleaded guilty already. Hays had admitted pushing Detective Hall to the ground and beating him with a baton. Colletta pleaded guilty to making false statements to a grand jury about the assault.
Hays testified against his former colleagues, saying Boone kept his knee on Hall’s shoulder and Korte kicked Hall in the head while he was lying face down on the ground. Hays was questioned about day-after texts justifying the assault during which he claimed Hall had resisted arrest.
Hays insisted that upon subsequent recollection, he was wrong, and Hall did not resist arrest. But defense attorneys representing the other officers seized on inconsistencies in Hays’ previous statements and testimony. He is awaiting sentencing and faces up to 10 years.
Many other current and former officers also testified during the trial. Uzoma Onwumere, an FBI agent, was a St. Louis police officer in 2017 and witnessed Hall’s arrest and assault. Onwumere testified he watched Myers beat Hall despite being handcuffed.
Sgt. Joseph Marcantano testified he got blood on his hands when he pulled down a neck gaiter around Hall’s face. When questioned by the defense, Marcantano said he never reported what he knew to the Internal Affairs Department.
Naturally, after all this the three defendants were acquitted on most charges. Jurors could not agree on two charges — that Myers had smashed Hall’s cell phone, and that Boone had deprived Hall of his rights. On those charges, the judge declared a mistrial. Otherwise, the jury apparently didn’t have a problem with the cops’ behavior.
At least, Luther Hall received a $5 million settlement from the city of St. Louis last month. Other lawsuits against the city are still pending, filed by citizens who claim police officers used unjustified force against them that weekend in September 2017.