Ex-St Louis officer’s conviction points up revolving door for disgraced police

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

A former St Louis police officer with a track record of violence, including the killing of a mentally disturbed Black man that was condemned as amounting to an execution, has been convicted of beating a suspect as he lay restrained and prostrate on the ground.

Ellis Brown III was found guilty by a federal jury last week after an internal police inquiry cleared him over a car chase in 2019 which ended with the then detective severely kicking Steven Kolb after he surrendered.

Related: US police have a history of violence against black people. Will it ever stop?

Kolb was so badly injured he was taken to hospital. The former officer faces up to 10 years in prison.

But Brown is better known as one of two St Louis officers who shot dead Kajieme Powell in 2014, just 10 days after another police officer killed Michael Brown a short distance away in Ferguson, invigorating the Black Lives Matter movement and sparking weeks of civil unrest.

While Michael Brown’s death drew national and international protests, BLM organisers in St Louis paid less attention to Powell’s killing, in part because he was carrying a knife during what appeared to be a mental health crisis.

But the circumstances of the 25-year-old’s death were in many ways even more controversial. While Michael Brown was wrestling with a police officer before he was shot, critics said Powell was clearly mentally disturbed when Ellis Brown and his colleague opened fire just seconds after arriving on the scene.

The former detective left the St Louis police several years later after he was caught lying about a car pursuit that resulted in a crash.

But Ellis Brown’s history, including other allegations of violence and of fabricating evidence, has raised questions about the ease with which police officers with bad records are able to move between departments after he swiftly found a job with the city of St Ann, a St Louis suburb. There Brown rose to be head of detectives until his arrest for assaulting Kolb.

Kolb was arrested after a high-speed chase through St Louis before he crashed along with several police cars. He tried to make a run for it before lying on the ground with his hands outstretched.

Brown then assaulted him, breaking ribs and bones in Kolb’s face.

“Ellis Brown was interested in one thing and one thing only: retribution,” the prosecutor, Sirena Wissler, said in her closing argument.

Although he was initially cleared by his own department, federal investigators charged him after video footage from a bank camera showed the assault.

Similarly, video of Brown’s shooting of Powell seven years ago raised questions about his conduct. It shows the Black man pacing outside a store from which he was alleged to have stolen soft drinks and donuts. Powell does not interfere with passersby but when the police arrive and stop several yards away, he is seen to be holding a steak knife and shouts at them to kill him. They make no attempt to de-escalate the situation and order him to the ground.

After he takes a step toward them, Ellis Brown and his colleague each fired six shots. It is less than 15 seconds after they arrived on the scene.

Witnesses to the shooting said it was clear that Powell was in crisis and questioned why lesser force could not have been used. Powell’s family said he suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, and is suing the St Louis police.

Protesters march against police brutality in St Louis, Missouri, in 2020.
Protesters march against police brutality in St Louis, Missouri, in 2020. Photograph: Michael B Thomas/Getty Images

The city’s police chief, Sam Dotson, initially claimed that Powell was charging at the officers while brandishing the knife in “an overhand grip” but the video showed this was not true. The St Louis city prosecutor, Jennifer Joyce, declined to prosecute Ellis Brown or his colleague, saying they were acting in self-defense.

In the following years, Brown came under investigation over a number of other accusations of use of excessive force as well as fabricating evidence after using virtually identical language in 19 applications for search warrants, mostly over drugs, which resulted in a trial being halted and several other cases being thrown out.

Brown was forced out of the St Louis department four years ago after he was found to have lied about an incident in which he pursued a vehicle that crashed and caught fire without helping the driver or reporting it to rescue services. But the disgraced officer was able to find a job at the St Ann police department and was later promoted to head its detective division.

The St Louis Post-Dispatch reported that officers with poor records are shuffled between dozens of small police forces in the St Louis area as small municipalities with tight budgets overlook histories of misconduct in order to hire experienced officers forced to accept lower pay.

Among those hired by St Ann were Joshua Becherer, who resigned from St Louis police in 2017 after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic assault for pointing a loaded rifle at a woman’s face and threatening to kill her. Others taken on by the department include a St Louis officer who pistol whipped a 12-year-old girl and then lied about the circumstances, and another who shot a Black colleague who was out of uniform in circumstances that indicated racial profiling.

Among Brown’s colleagues in the St Ann detective bureau was an officer who left the St Louis force after he was accused of using a stun gun on a handcuffed man who was lying on the ground.

Last year, the St Ann police issued a statement in response to the St Louis Post-Dispatch report, claiming that 95% of residents of the city have a positive view of the department.

“St Ann police department staff; police officers, dispatchers, and corrections officers, go through a thorough and rigorous hiring process that is fair, but strict, so that we are employing the best people while following all Missouri and federal guidelines,” it said.