Former St. Louis Police Captain Ryan Cousins, whose firing in May caused protest from the African-American community, filed a lawsuit on March 2 against the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and City of St. Louis, claiming “unlawful discriminatory practices.”
The suit alleges that a group of mostly white officers committed several unlawful acts when handling a burglary investigation in January 2016, and those officers corroborated their stories to make Cousins the “scapegoat” for their deeds.
Cousins, a 20-year veteran who served in the police department’s Sixth District, is currently appealing his firing before the city’s Civil Service Commission. His hearing, which is closed to the public, began in January and is expected to end this month.
To date, Cousins has only been told his charges were “conduct unbecoming” and making false statements to investigators in relation to the January burglary investigation, said Cousins’ lawyer Lynette Petruska. Yet even five days into the commission’s hearing, Cousins had yet to hear about any specific wrongdoings he committed, she said.
“I still don’t know what I’m defending,” Petruska said. “When you have to play ‘guess what you are accused of,’ it’s hard to defend yourself. That’s what a city does when they are trying to cover up what they’ve done.”
The City Counselor’s Office did not respond to The St. Louis American’s request for comment.
According to the suit, Cousins had been with the police department for almost 20 years when he was promoted to the rank of captain in September 2015.
On the morning of January 29, 2016, the department received a call for shots fired in the Lowell Street area. Officers responded to the area but found no evidence of any shots fired. Shortly after, four police officers responded to an African-American homeowner’s call claiming his home on the 8800 block of Lowell Street was being robbed. The home, which is near North Broadway and Riverview Boulevard, had also been burglarized recently.
“Because their home had been burglarized twice within a short period of time, officers assumed that they were criminals, instead of the victims,” the lawsuit states.
So when the officers arrived at the scene, they placed the homeowner (who is not named) in handcuffs, rather than treating him like the victim of a burglary. Two more officers arrived – including Officer Brian Bianchi, who was Jason Stockley’s partner when Stockley shot and killed Anthony Lamar, an African-American man, in December 2011, the suit states. Stockley was later charged with murder in Lamar’s death.
The officers searched the house for possible threats and declared it cleared, the lawsuit states. At that point an unnamed sergeant, who The American is told is Sgt. Michael Scego, arrived and began to search the home without a warrant or homeowner’s permission. Scego found a gun in the home, the suit states.
The suit alleges that this gun search was illegal because it violated the homeowner’s 4th Amendment right as well as department policy and procedure.
“The officers performing the illegal/unconstitutional gun search are all Caucasian,” the suit states. “None have been disciplined but instead have been protected by the department.”
Prior to this incident, Scego, who is white, had been disciplined for improper searches and providing false information related to a search, the suit states, but he was still promoted to sergeant by Police Chief Sam Dotson.
A police spokeswoman said the department could not comment on the allegations against Scego or the other officers because of the pending litigation. She referred all questions to the city counselor.
The officers questioned the homeowner while he was handcuffed, asking him “guilt-seeking questions,” the suit states. They did not read the man his Miranda rights before questioning him, even though they suspected he had committed a crime, the suit states. The suit alleges that this questioning was illegal, in violation of the 5th Amendment and department procedure.
“Officers of the department regularly violate the 4th and 5th Amendment rights of African-American residents of the city because they know they will be protected (not disciplined) when they engage in such misconduct,” the suit states.
In order to cover-up their “illegal/unconstitutional acts” and prevent Cousins from discovering their misconduct, the suit alleges, the officers claimed that Cousins told them to file a false police report and not seize evidence at the scene.
“These false allegations prevented Cousins from reviewing and approving the report, which he should have done if he was the officer in charge of the scene,” the suit states.
The suit further claims that Lieutenant D.G., whom The American is told is Lt. David Grove, met with the officers after they returned to the department and instructed them on how to prepare the report. Grove, who is white, also spoke to officers at the scene as a group, the suit alleges, telling them what had happened at the burglarized home and “what their dilemma was.”
“He then instructed the officers to write memos about what happened at the scene, which were written while the officers were together, allowing them to coordinate their stories,” the suit states.
A majority of the officers at the scene were represented by the same lawyer, who The American is told is Brian Millikan, allowing them to coordinate their stories when interviewed by the department, the suit states. In an email, Millikan said he would not be able to give a comment because he is in trial all week.
“This would not be the first time officers of the department, represented by a single attorney, coordinated their stories to scapegoat another officer for their misconduct based upon race,” the suit claims.
The day after the incident, January 30, 2016, Grove completed and signed a warrant application for the homeowner’s arrest. The arrest warrant claimed that the homeowner had been given his Miranda warnings. False statements on a warrant application are a crime, the suit states, but Grove has not been disciplined for falsifying warrant applications.
On February 1, 2016, a department detective prepared an affidavit in support of a search warrant, which was based on an interview with Grove. It stated that Grove “observed shell casings inside and outside” the burglarized home. However, Grove never went into the yard or inside the house, the suit states, which would make the affidavit a false statement.
Dotson placed Cousins on forced leave on or about February 12, 2016, which the lawsuit claims was a political move in Dotson’s candidacy for mayor, which he later abandoned. About 1,000 letters from Sixth District residents, who are mainly African-American, protested Dotson’s decision.
“They described Dotson’s decision to place Cousins on forced leave as a smear campaign to ruin the reputation and career of a stellar African-American officer working to better the community,” the suit states. “They asked that Cousins be returned because he cared about the community, which stands in sharp contrast to the cavalier violation of constitutional rights by other officers working in the community.”
Cousins was fired on May 24, 2016.
Cousins has not been charged with a crime, the suit states. Cousins filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights after he was discharged. The commission issued Cousins a “right to sue” letter on March 1. He filed the lawsuit on March 2.
“African-American residents aren’t second-class citizens,” Petruska said. “They have the same constitutional rights as everyone else.”