St. Louis police defend their practice of `taking the 5th` in officer-involved shooting investigations

ST. LOUIS - A new court filing accuses the St. Louis Circuit Attorney`s office of violating the rights of police officers while jeopardizing criminal cases against dangerous suspects.

The circuit attorney`s office lists 45 potential investigations into police officers who have shot suspects.  Some date back more than three years.  Only five of them have closed.    Now the criminal case may be delayed against a man who fled police on I-44 and reportedly pointed a gun at officers.

The Police Force Investigation Unit has not yet completed its report on the shooting and the inquiry into the involved officers remains open.

An attorney for St. Louis police officers filed a court motion accusing the prosecutor`s office of a conflict of interest. The court motion says “Robert Steele, the lead prosecutor in police shooting investigations, intended to voir dire officers involved in a shooting during grand jury proceedings” involving the I-44 suspect police shot.

The motion says "adding to the suspicion and appearance of impropriety is the fact that the CAO will not inform the involved officers whether or not they are being charged (or even given a time frame for when a decision might be made)..."  The filing attorney Brian Millikin would not talk because the case is ongoing, but attorney Neil Bruntrager agreed to explain.

He said, “You can`t wear both hats Chris.  It comes down to - either you`re the prosecutor or the investigator.  You can`t be both.”

Bruntrager said he would advise any police officer not to testify in the case against a criminal defendant he or she shot, unless the prosecutor either finishes the investigation into the officer or brings in an independent prosecutor to investigate the officer.

He added, “It would make all the difference in the world.  So again we`re not trying to hide anything.  What we`re trying to do is make sure their rights are protected.”

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner would not talk because this involves ongoing cases, but in an October 3rd public safety meeting, she expressed frustration about officers who refuse to testify.  She said, “At some point we have to seek the truth.  My problem is in those examples we do have witnesses, they come in with the police union, officers, and they all plead the 5th.”

Here`s how Gardner responded when an alderman asked about using an independent prosecutor for the police involved shootings.

She said, “So you`re saying I as a local prosecutor, who is held accountable for the people who have elected me - cannot prosecute these cases?”

The alderman interjected, “That`s not what I`m saying.  I`m simply asking you - what about using the AGs office.”

Gardner said, “But you said let`s go to the attorney generals.  The attorney generals are basically not accountable.  I`m the only one accountable.” The court filing says one officer is even being punished for taking the 5th.  It claims prosecutors won`t allow the officer to bring any cases over for prosecution.

The Circuit Attorney's office sent a statement saying "...we believe the motion to disqualify the office is frivolous..." and that "...these allegations are a blatant attempt to dictate how officer-involved shootings should be investigated and prosecuted in the City of St. Louis.”

We'll learn more at the next hearing on this.