A North St. Louis County, Missouri, police department has finally offered an explanation of a photo showing an officer posing with the body of a woman’s 28-year-old son.
For the first time, North County Cooperative Chief Tim Swope is detailing an on-the-record explanation for the officer’s actions, although investigations into the matter are not yet complete, according to television station KMOV in St. Louis.
On Thursday, the station revealed a photo sent by an anonymous source in law enforcement. The picture appears to shows a North County Cooperative police officer holding onto the arm of a deceased man, 28-year-old Omar Rahman, and giving a thumbs-up sign. The medical examiner ruled Rahman’s August 8 death an accidental drug overdose.
“They’re supposed to be there to help and protect, not doing what he was doing with a thumbs up and a smirk on his face,” said Rahman’s mother, Kim Staton.
Staton’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, called the photo “hideous.”
Prior to airing the original story, KMOV repeatedly offered to show the photo to Chief Tim Swope, but he declined. Swope also declined to provide any on-the-record comment, aside from saying he was conducting an internal and external investigation into the “totality” of the situation.
Late Monday, the department posted a letter from the chief on the department’s official Facebook page. The letter was not officially provided to the television station.
In the letter, Swope defends his officer’s actions.
“This photograph depicts an officer positioning a deceased person in order to allow a detective to take pictures of the scene,” he wrote. “Pictures were taken to show what the officers believed to be the cause of death and of the arms and posterior to show that there were no signs of trauma to those parts of the body.”
The letter states the following about the thumbs up:
“The officer gave the ‘thumbs up’ sign related to his positioning of the body in response to the photographer’s question as to whether he was ready for the photo to be taken.”
The letter goes on to say that the detective taking the photo did not know the officer was in the initial photo until immediately after it was taken because the detective was trained to use the camera’s optical view finder, not the LCD panel.
“When the detective realized the officer was in the picture, he took another photograph that omitted the officer and showed the portion of the body being photographed only, consistent with training.”
The letter does not address the expression on the officer’s face.
It references the photograph as being “stolen,” but does not explain how the photograph was stolen.
Staton says police told her that their official crime scene camera had been missing for a time and that photos were also missing.
A law enforcement expert initially told KMOV the fact that the official photos were missing is very problematic.
Romanucci reacted to Swope’s letter Monday night in a statement:
“The Chief of the Co-op tells a story based on a one-sided account. As it is, we may never know the truth behind this grotesque photo because Omar cannot speak to it and the other victim, Kimberly Staton, his mom, was never given the benefit of seeing the photo until KMOV revealed it to her. The public does not have access to the investigation conducted by Chief Swope, other than the self-serving statement of the involved officers who tell the only possible story to cover up their misdeeds. However, no one explains what was so funny about holding up the arm of a young, black male as if he was a buck trophy. Taking a “fun” picture of a potential crime scene is distrustful, immoral, unprofessional and a clear sign of a lack of sensitivity training on the part of this department.”
The officer KMOV believes is depicted in the photo has not responded to a request for comment. The station has chosen to conceal the identity of the officer, because no wrongdoing has been determined.
In his letter, Swope indicated that the department was still “in the midst of an internal and external investigation.”