An Earlier Death in Ferguson Receives Renewed Scrutiny

Marcelle Stewart, left, confronts police officers during a march and rally in downtown Ferguson, Mo., Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. Stewart said she was attending the rally because her son-in-law Jason Moore died after being shot with a taser by police.
Marcelle Stewart, left, confronts police officers during a march and rally in downtown Ferguson, Mo., Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. Stewart said she was attending the rally because her son-in-law Jason Moore died after being shot with a taser by police. –AP

FERGUSON, Mo. — Early one morning in September 2011, an unarmed 31-year-old black man ran down a residential street here yelling at cars while he pounded his hands on them.

“God is good,’’ the man, Jason Moore, said. “I am Jesus.’’

The first officer to approach Moore told him to raise his hands and walk toward him, according to a police report on the incident. But Moore, whose family said he was mentally ill, started running toward the officer “in an aggressive manner while swinging his fist in a pinwheel motion,’’ the officer said in the report. And when he failed to obey commands to get on the ground, the officer took out his Taser gun and fired it at him, the report said.

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Moore fell to the ground, but after he tried to get up, the officer fired the Taser twice more into him. Moore let out a raspy sound and stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead soon after.

Moore’s death and how it was handled by the Ferguson Police Department are now receiving renewed scrutiny after one of the department’s officers, Darren Wilson, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old, on Aug. 9. On Tuesday, relatives of Moore filed two lawsuits against the department in federal court, saying that the department wrongfully killed him. The suit was one of several filed in recent years that raised questions about excessive use of force or civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department.

The police contend that they behaved properly in all of those cases, and none of the lawsuits has yet led to a judgment against the department. But critics assert that the complaints show a pattern of violent behavior or weak discipline within the force — and say that the department’s conduct should be closely investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, which has already opened an inquiry into Brown’s death.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who visited Ferguson on Wednesday, and top Justice Department officials have begun weighing whether to open just such a broader civil rights review of Ferguson’s police practices, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks.

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Their discussion has been prompted in part by past complaints against the force, including a 2009 case in which a man said that four police officers beat him, then charged him with damaging government property — by getting blood on their uniforms. That case is now the subject of one of the lawsuits against the department.

During his daylong visit, Holder met with local and state officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon, but also with a group of residents that included Jason Moore’s sister, Molyrik Welch, 27, who described her brother’s death.

“A lot has happened here,’’ Welch said after the meeting. She added that Holder had promised that “things were going to change.’’

Before a briefing at local FBI headquarters, Holder promised that the investigation into Brown’s death would be “thorough and fair’’ and that “very experienced’’ prosecutors and agents had been assigned. “We’re looking for violations of federal criminal civil rights statutes,’’ he said.

But at another stop — a meeting with residents at a community college — he also spoke in deeply personal terms about his own problems with the police when he was a young man.

Saying he could “understand that mistrust’’ that many young blacks feel toward the police, Holder recalled twice being pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike and having his car searched. “I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me,’’ Holder told the group.

He also recounted being stopped by police in Georgetown, an upscale section of Washington, because he was running to see a film. “I wasn’t a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice,’’ he said. “So I’ve confronted this myself.’’

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Holder told the group: “We need concrete action to change things in this country. “The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States. This country is capable of change. But change doesn’t happen by itself.’’

For most of Wednesday morning and early afternoon, the stretch of West Florissant Avenue that has been the center of protest and confrontation turned quiet enough to seem like any other commercial thoroughfare — save for the plywood covering smashed store windows here and there. An encouraging sign appeared at Red The Bar-B-Que Man restaurant, where the curl of blue smoke signaled that ribs were once again available for purchase.

By early evening, under stormy skies, tensions flared when a couple identifying themselves as Chuck and Dawn showed up along the route with signs supporting Wilson. “Justice is for Everybody — Even P.O. Wilson,’’ one of the signs read. Some protesters began to crowd around and jeer, while others urged calm.

As the shouting grew louder and a water bottle was thrown, police stepped in and spirited the couple away from the crowd.

Also on Wednesday, the St. Louis County Police Department said that an officer from a local police department had been suspended after he pointed a semiautomatic rifle at a peaceful protester following a verbal exchange on Tuesday night. In a news release, the county police called the officer’s action “inappropriate,’’ saying that a police sergeant had immediately escorted him away from the scene.

The incident involving Moore began at 6:46 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2011, when an officer was dispatched in response to reports that Moore was running naked through the streets, according to police reports.

“I exited my patrol vehicle and advised Jason to put his hands in the air and to walk my way,’’ the officer said in a statement he filed after the incident. Moore, the officer said, began moving aggressively toward him, and despite several commands to stop, he did not.

“Jason continued to charge, at the time I deployed one 5-second burst from the Taser,’’ the officer said in the report. “The Taser darts made contact with Jason on his left side of his chest and the right thigh.’’

The officer said that after the initial shot, Moore fell to the ground and then tried to get back on his feet. Again, Moore ignored commands to remain where he was, the officer said. “In fear for my safety and the safety of Jason, I administered a second 5-second burst,’’ the officer said.

As another officer arrived at the scene and got out of his vehicle, Moore tried for a third time to get up. Moore again ignored commands to remain on the ground, and the officer used the Taser gun on him again.

The officer who had just arrived handcuffed Moore and laid him on his stomach, at which point emergency medical responders were dispatched to the scene. Another officer attempted to speak with Moore, but received no response, according to the police reports.

One of the lawsuits filed by Moore’s relatives says that the officers left Moore face down and did not monitor his vital signs.

According to the police reports, about a minute after Moore was handcuffed, the officer noticed that he was not breathing and removed the handcuffs. The officers rolled Moore over and began administering CPR for several minutes. “Moore would seem to start to breathe on his own and stop,’’ one of the police reports said.

Moore was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In one of their lawsuits, the family asserts that Moore was unarmed and “suffering from a psychological disorder and demonstrated clear signs of mental illness.’’ A lawyer for the Moore family declined to comment, or explain why it had taken three years to file the lawsuit.

But in an interview posted on YouTube last week, Moore’s sister said the family had been unable to find a lawyer willing to handle the case until recently.