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Commentary: Injustice for all

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2011 - My first published column was entitled, "Everybody Loves a Dead Cop." Written on the occasion of the 1997 Police Memorial Breakfast, it addressed a pet peeve of mine -- namely, that civic leaders tend to fall over each other to heap praise on a cop after he's been killed, but evince little interest about improving the plight of his living counterparts.

The dead, after all, are beyond the reach of this mortal coil. Nobody can better their lot. The living, however, might appreciate some mundane amenity like a couple of extra days off or even -- gasp -- a pay raise, but there's little appetite for such accommodations. In fact, the very people who publicly exalt the fallen are often the same ones who will drop a cop like a bad habit should he become involved in a controversial case. We're always here for you, officer, just make sure you're dead before you ask for our help ...

Now some 14 years later, it seems that my inaugural offering was misnamed because it's becoming apparent that not everybody loves a dead cop. On March 8, Deputy U.S. Marshal John Perry sustained a gunshot wound to the head while executing an arrest warrant at a house in south St. Louis. He later died at an area hospital. Another marshal and a city police detective were also wounded in the raid.

The suspect, Carlos Boles, was an ex-con who was wanted for narcotics possession and assaulting an officer. He was fatally wounded in the exchange of gunfire, although that fact was not immediately known because members of the fugitive team withdrew from the premises with their wounded, pending the arrival of assistance.

As SWAT officers surrounded the house, 100 or so onlookers from the neighborhood gathered to express their heartfelt, vocal support -- for the cop-killer. Tony Johnson, a 22-year-old resident of the area, told a reporter that the mood of the crowd as one of "complete anger. People around here don't like cops."

Live reports from the scene indicated that a small mob chased a woman suspected of cooperating with the police into nearby Marquette Park where they ran her to ground before officers intervened in her behalf. Overnight, graffiti expressing anti-police sentiments would sprout in the vicinity.

Interviewed in the Post-Dispatch, Chris Cosgriff, creator of the Officer Down Memorial Page, blamed the recent spate of violence against police officials on "... a more brazen attitude by offenders. They're ambushing officers and they're not giving up. ... They're clearly saying, 'I'm going to kill cops and I'm not coming out alive'."

The president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, John Adler, cited "a combination of utter contempt and desperation in the violent offender ... [that] creates a very irrational, deadly mind-set, one that simply pulls the trigger and doesn't consider the consequences."

Coverage of Marshal Perry's tragic slaying was instructive in regard to a couple of issues. Normally, mom, dad, Ginger and Skip sit snug in their suburban den and shake their heads at televised allegations of police brutality. How can civil servants behave like this? Haven't they heard of the Constitution? Here, the viewer was afforded genuine insight -- live and unrehearsed -- into the element that street cops have to deal with on a daily basis. Callers to a local radio program I heard later in the day sounded both chastised and shocked.

The case also demonstrated that there is no way to perform police work effectively without putting oneself at risk. Consider the daily occurrence of a cop chasing a suspect down an alley: If the officer stopped to check every alcove, nook and cranny along the route for a possible assailant lying in wait, his perp would be in the next county before he cleared the block. No matter how well-trained and equipped, the cop always bets his life on the next arrest.

In the Perry shooting, the killer also lost his life. Justice was served, although it was purchased at a terrible price. That's more than can be said for the murder trial of Todd Shepard from the week prior.

Shepard was charged with the cold-blooded assassination of Michael King, a police sergeant in University City. Although he testified that he shot King five times without provocation, and although he expressed gratitude that his victim had expired, a jury could not bring itself to condemn the killer to death.

It was against this backdrop of slaughtered cops that Christine Miller was sentenced to eight years in prison for killing four people and grievously wounding another in a drunk-driving collision. At the time of the accident, she was an off-duty Sunset Hills police officer.

County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who had previously decried the Shepard sentence, was equally critical of this one. Perhaps he was right. A cop should know better and though no sentence -- however harsh -- can bring back the young people who were killed; it's not the job of the trial court to raise the dead but merely to mete justice on their behalf.

On the other hand, a 43-year-old first-time offender could normally expect a measure of leniency. When Rams' defensive end Leonard Little took a life under similar circumstances, he got shock probation. In fact, in an astoundingly cruel twist of fate, Miller's own son is presently on probation for a DWI death.

Then again, there was the specter of the sobbing families of the deceased who traveled here from India to seek justice for their slain children whose only crime was to pursue an education at an American university.

The judge was left with a decision vexing enough to confound a Solomon. If his sentence proved to be an injustice, well, there seems to be a lot of that going around.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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