Judge questions oversight of St. Louis police brutality complaints

Friday, October 24, 2008 | 1:51 p.m. CDT; updated 2:30 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 24, 2008

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge considering an alleged police brutality case is raising concerns that only one case of physical abuse by St. Louis officers was sustained over a five-year period.

U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said in a court order Thursday that the department received more than 300 complaints of physical abuse in the five years before 2002 — the year Kenneth Rohrbough alleges he was beaten by officers during an arrest. The judge has not ruled on the substance of the civil suit.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Webber's court order said St. Louis police board members never requested statistics on brutality complaints or investigations and asked for internal affairs files only in narrow instances.

Webber said that not asking for these statistics "either intentionally or unwittingly" created an insulating barrier which prevented notice of complaints from reaching the board. He called that tantamount to turning a blind eye.

Citizen complaints have depended upon nonpolice witnesses, Webber said. In a deposition, police Capt. John Hayden, the internal affairs commander, said he could not recall a single instance of an officer reporting excessive force by another officer.

In the order, Webber said the evidence was sufficient for a jury to find that the board is "deliberately indifferent to the risk that officers are using excessive force."

That order came after Webber considered arguments and evidence the board presented in seeking to have Rohrbough's lawsuit dismissed. Rohrbough's suit is still pending.

Rohrbough filed the lawsuit last year, claiming he was beaten during a 2002 arrest.

Because of a 1980 car accident, Rohrbough has brain damage. He has trouble understanding and expressing himself verbally or in writing, according to court documents. He considers police to be "buddies," as his father worked for the department for 18 years.

He was picking up glasses at an optometrist's office on Sept. 3, 2002, when he became frustrated, threw or broke the glasses and left, court documents show. He also may have damaged store displays.

The office's owner flagged down police.

In court depositions, Officer Luther Hall said Rohrbough raised his fists and took a swing at Hall, who grabbed his arm, forced him to the ground and handcuffed him.

Rohrbough denied threatening officers and said he was hit by Hall and clubbed by another officer. The judge removed one officer as a defendant and threw out some parts of the lawsuit.

The police board that Webber is calling into question includes the mayor and four appointees made by the governor. It controls the department in an arrangement that nationwide is unique to St. Louis and Kansas City. Members serve four-year terms. Among the incumbents only the mayor would have been on the St. Louis board in 2002.

Board treasurer Vincent J. Bommarito said Thursday he did not know details of Webber's order, but said the board does a good job with oversight and called the city's Police Department one of the best.


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