An 18-year-old black man died from a single gunshot wound to the back after a police raid on a St. Louis home this week, but the city’s police chief urged the public not to jump to conclusions about the way the man was killed.
Instead, he said, police must piece together the sequence of events that began when Mansur Ball-Bey saw plainclothes officers in police vests charge the backyard of a house in north St. Louis. Ball-Bey then jumped a fence and was shot and killed.
“It’s important now more than ever to have the facts,” said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson at a news conference Friday. “One thing we need to know is what happened in that backyard.”
Officer shootings are treated as criminal investigations, Dotson said, and the preliminary autopsy report does not shift the focus of the investigation of the actions of the two police officers, both white, who fired four shots in total.
“It started as a criminal investigation, and it continues as a criminal investigation,” Dotson said.
Dotson said the fact that Ball-Bey was shot in the back could mean many things.
“Where was the subject standing? Where were the officers standing? Were they running? Were they stopped?” Dotson said.
On Friday, Ball-Bey family attorney Jerryl Christmas told the Los Angeles Times that witnesses have told him that Ball-Bey was not armed, and only ran when he saw men in plainclothes armed with guns charging a house next door.
“He saw men with guns and he took off running,” Christmas said. “He was not armed, he did not have a gun, our interviews show that.”
Dotson said he has a witness statement corroborating the officers’ assertion that Ball-Bey had a gun.
“I have a witness statement that says there was a gun involved, and I have the officers’ statements that say there was a gun involved,” Dotson said. “You weren’t there and I wasn’t there.”
Dotson said St. Louis police officers are trained to fire on subjects whom they believe pose a threat to the officers or other civilians.
Dotson declined to comment specifically on Ball-Bey’s shooting, but said a suspect who “runs, jumps a fence and twists and turns,” can be assumed to be a threat.
After he ran and jumped the fence, Ball-Bey was shot on the left side of his back and the bullet entered his heart, Christmas said. It’s impossible, he said, for Ball-Bey to have twisted and turned after he was shot.
“Our forensic expert said he would have been unconscious instantly,” Christmas said.
The location of gunshot wounds of black men killed by white police officers is a central issue to protesters who allege police are too quick to use lethal force on black suspects.
The death of Michael Brown, 18, in nearby Ferguson, Mo., last year touched off an entire movement -- Black Lives Matter -- carried forward by the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The slogan, which was based on initial witness statements, implied that Brown died with his hands up.
An autopsy and Justice Department investigation indicated that Brown likely did not have his hands raised when he was shot by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white.
Christmas said the discrepancies between the official police narrative and witnesses is an example of the need to require police officers to wear body cameras.
The latest incident began when police arrived with a warrant at a house in north St. Louis on Wednesday morning, where they found “drugs and guns,” Dotson said in a Thursday press conference.
Dotson said Ball-Bey and a second suspect fled when police arrived, and two officers fired four rounds at Ball-Bey after he pointed a handgun at them.
Police are still searching for the second suspect, whom Dotson described on Friday as 14 years old.
The killing will be examined by the department’s Force Investigation Unit, headed by Jennifer Joyce, a unit created after protests in Ferguson last year to examine police conduct when they respond with force.
The results of the department’s investigation will also be sent to Richard Callahan, the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri.
Ball-Bey’s death incited protests Wednesday night that included the burning of a car and the arrests of nine people. Police wore riot gear and deployed tear gas to disperse the crowd, which protesters said only aggravated an already tense situation.
The St. Louis City Medical Examiner’s Office declined to comment on the autopsy report when reached by the Los Angeles Times. A pathologist who refused to be identified said the report on Ball-Bey would not be completed for 10 to 12 weeks and would only be released to next of kin.
The St. Louis police officers involved in the Ball-Bey shooting, both white, have been put on leave pending an internal investigation, which is standard procedure. Neither was injured.
One is a 33 with seven years on the force, the other is 29 with nearly seven years of experience.