By Christine Byers St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — More than a year later, some police officers are still struggling with what could become career-ending injuries they suffered when protesters took to the streets following the acquittal of a St. Louis police officer accused of murder.
In all, then Interim Chief Lawrence O’Toole announced that 30 officers had been physically injured while responding to protests that followed the acquittal of Jason Stockley.
Police leaders said the majority of them, though shaken, battered and bruised, didn’t take any time off. At least five had to be hospitalized. Some took a few days off. Others, months.
The department doesn’t track how many sought mental counseling in the aftermath. At least one rookie officer quit in the middle of the protest.
Another officer remains on leave, recovering from injuries other officers inflicted on him after they mistook him for a protester and arrested him while he was undercover. He declined to be interviewed through his attorney, who would not discuss his injuries.
That incident is part of a federal investigation into how the department handled the protests — which have resulted in 14 lawsuits against the city, including one involving a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.
But officers were hurt, too.
Buses transported teams of officers, assigned to various duties such as making arrests, collecting evidence and holding the line throughout the city as protests erupted in different locations.
Three injured in a roving protest near the mayor’s house, which included objects thrown at her house, and throughout the Central West End on Sept. 15, 2017, shared their stories.
Sgt. John McLaughlin, 54
McLaughlin returned to duty for the first time late last month since a water bottle hit him in the head, giving him a concussion. He also suffered a knee injury. He’s taking it slow for now, only four hours a day for four days a week in the department’s Problem Properties Unit, where he was before he left.
“Everything is different,” he said. “New boss, new chief, new everything.”
McLaughlin walked the streets as part of an evidence team collecting rocks, frozen water bottles, landscaping pavers, bricks, cobblestones, pieces of metal and sewer cap covers that had been thrown at officers.
“There were hundreds of people all around us, on all sides,” McLaughlin recalled. “We were surrounded by people coming at us, throwing stuff at me. They got my uniform shirt and pants full of red paint and there were policemen getting hurt all around me.”
He said he was about 30 minutes away from ending his 17-hour shift when a bottle of water thrown from a window above him hit the side of his head. He was dazed and fell to his knees. He couldn’t breathe. He believes he got sprayed with some kind of chemical, but said it didn’t seem to affect others like it affected him. He fainted, and smacked his head when he fell.
Doctors told him he suffered a concussion. For the first three months, he said headaches paralyzed him. He couldn’t drive for six months. He relied on his 78-year-old mother and close friends to take him to and from appointments, including speech, physical and mental therapy. He gained 40 pounds from steroids doctors gave him to try to clear his lungs.
“I have problems getting words out, forming my thoughts,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was. I’m not confident anymore. It’s been pretty tough for the past year, but I gotta get back for many reasons.”
He’s been on the force for 26 years. He’s hoping to make it four more so he can get his full retirement benefits.
Sgt. Joe Hill, 44
Not long before Hill supervised an arrest team during the protests, he was boxing three times a week and had served as a sergeant on the SWAT team.
For the past year, he said, he hasn’t been able to shave, do a single push up, or run.
Hill wasn’t far from McLaughlin when he said he was hit by a chunk of granite from a curb. It felt like a car hit him in the shoulder, he said. The force spun him around in a circle and he fell.
His shoulder bone protruded awkwardly from his back. His arm hung to his side. His gun hand was useless.
“I was trying to pretend like I was a viable officer at that point, still giving direction to my guys,” he said.
He saw another officer fall. Then another. Getting them to an ambulance became his primary goal, but a protester came up behind the line of officers, Hill said.
“He was about to grab one of the officers from behind,” Hill said. “My job was to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Hill, a 19-year veteran of the force, said the man then attacked him, so he punched him. Other officers arrested the protester.
At the hospital, Hill said his shoulder popped back into socket. Tests revealed he tore all of the ligaments in his hand and broke several bones when he punched the man.
He’s battled with worker’s compensation and had to pay some of his medical bills with credit cards. He’s been unable to work secondary jobs, which he said cost him his house. And he’s been paying for a divorce.
“I lost it all,” he said. “I’m done crying about it. It’s not like I was drafted into the police department. How can I be sad? That’s what happens.”
He returned to duty March 16, as a sergeant in the Sixth District. He was put on limited duty in June. He filed a grievance over administrative disputes with the department about his condition, and was returned to full duty three weeks ago — just in time to undergo another hand surgery. He’s out again until at least Oct. 18.
“People tell me, ‘Take your disability,’ but I can still work,” he said. “I don’t want to be disabled. I’m miserable if I’m not a cop. I can’t imagine going out like this.”
Officer Ashley Barczewski, 27
Barczewski, a Sixth District officer, went into refresher training for the Civil Disobedience Team recently, and saw her name was still on the list to be on a front-line team. She tried to envision herself back out in the middle of an angry crowd hurling objects at her and her fellow officers.
“Just thinking about if I did, my mind would be so distracted,” she said. “A year later, that’s what I’m working with. I’ll still answer radio calls in the district, but if anything like that erupts again, I wouldn’t want to be in same position I was when this happened.”
Barczewski, a two-year veteran, was standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line of officers when a sea of people flowing into a synagogue near Kingshighway and Watermen boulevards caught her eye. She looked to her right and felt a sudden surge of pain to the left side of her face.
She had a helmet on, but a piece of cobblestone struck near her chin strap, dislocating her jaw. She collapsed.
She remembers feeling another officer drag her limp body to safety, just as she had practiced numerous times during “officer down” training drills.
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. She shared an ambulance with Hill.
“Her jaw was just hanging there like it was completely separated from her skull,” Hill recalled.
“The worst part for me was calling my parents,” Barczewski said. “I had been texting them all day saying, ‘It’s fine, we have all this protective gear and there’s tons of us.’”
She also suffered a concussion.
“I remember feeling so off,” she said.
Ever since, she, too, said it’s been a struggle dealing with worker’s compensation policies.
She was on a liquid diet for more than a month. She lost 20 pounds and much of her muscle mass. She didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. An ice pack wrap, a mouth guard that had to be adjusted weekly, a retainer she wore at night and physical therapy helped bring her jaw back into alignment.
She returned to duty just before Christmas but still met weekly with an oral surgeon overseeing her recovery until April. She still feels pain occasionally.
“I’m still struggling to even get to where I was before this happened,” she said.