ST. LOUIS (AP) — An autopsy showed that an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by an officer helping serve a search warrant in a violence-plagued neighborhood died from a single wound in the back, police said Friday.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson cautioned that the location of Mansur Ball-Bey’s wound neither confirms nor disproves two officers’ accounts that Ball-Bey pointed a loaded gun at them before they shot at him Wednesday.
The shooting had set off an evening of violent outcry, with authorities saying at least nine people were arrested and property was damaged. It also came on the heels of violence that marred the anniversary of the day Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in nearby Ferguson — a killing that sparked protests, the “Black Live Matter” movement and a national debate over police treatment of minorities.
Dotson said Thursday that a stolen handgun linked to Ball-Bey — with one round in the chamber and 13 more in the magazine — was found at the scene.
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“Just because he was shot in the back doesn’t mean he was running away,” Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “What I do know is that two officers were involved and fired shots, but I don’t know exactly where they were standing yet and I won’t know until I get their statements.”
Authorities haven’t said exactly where in the back Ball-Bey was shot. Police haven’t released the full autopsy or toxicology tests yet, and they have not explained why they don’t yet have statements from the officers. Messages left Friday with St. Louis’ chief medical examiner and that office’s investigator weren’t returned.
Dotson, unreachable Friday by The Associated Press, has pledged a thorough internal investigation by the police’s year-old Force Investigation Unit. Without specifying how long that “transparent” inquiry may take, police said its findings will be forwarded to St. Louis city and federal prosecutors for review.
“We have a policy that’s strong, a process that’s strong,” Dotson told the AP. “There’s strong third-party review, and we want to make everything above reproach.”
Messages left with the Ball-Bey family’s attorney, Jermaine Wooten, were not immediately returned. Wooten has insisted to media outlets that Ball-Bey was not armed when killed.
The law gives police officers latitude to use deadly force when they feel physically endangered. The Supreme Court held in a 1989 case that the appropriateness of use of force by officers “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” rather than evaluated through 20/20 hindsight.
That standard is designed to take into account that police officers frequently must make split-second decisions during fast-evolving confrontations and should not be subject to overly harsh second-guessing. The Justice Department cited that legal threshold earlier this year when it cleared officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Brown.
When it comes to suspects shot from behind, a police practices expert counseled against quick conclusions.
“Any time a suspect is shot in the back, it causes people to think something was done improperly or unfairly,” said Chuck Drago, a former police chief in Oviedo, Florida. “The truth is there are a lot of different ways a person could get shot in the back running away, and that in and of itself doesn’t mean a bad shooting.”
Drago said if an officer deems that a suspect running with a gun in hand poses a danger to police or bystanders, shooting him in the back may be the only lawful way to stop him. And often when an officer confronts an armed suspect, “by the time that officer recognizes the threat, gets a signal sent to their brain, pulls their gun and fires, the suspect may already have turned,” Drago said.
The fact that Ball-Bey was shot from behind “literally means nothing” without context, added David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist. “We just don’t know. You shouldn’t look at one thing and say this is dispositive, and it drives me nuts that people want to rush to judgment” against the police.
Officers have been cleared in cases in which suspects were shot in the back, including the St. Louis killing nearly a year ago of black 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr. by Jason Flanery, a white, off-duty officer.
Authorities have said Flanery was patrolling a neighborhood as a security officer in a marked private security car when he confronted Myers, who began shooting down a hill at Flanery. Flanery returned fire as Myers fled.
Dotson’s department internally investigated the matter and turned it over to St. Louis’ prosecutor, Jennifer Joyce, who in May announced that her office’s “independent and exhaustive investigation” concluded Flanery acted in self-defense.
Joyce said an autopsy showed Myers was shot eight times, with six of the entrance wounds on the back of Myers’ legs. All had an upward track, consistent with Flanery’s account that he was downhill from Myers.
An attorney for Myers’ family has insisted he was unarmed and Flanery planted the gun near Myers’ body.