Following the death of a man in police custody, questions arise regarding police brutality.
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Following the death of a man in police custody, questions arise regarding police brutality.

Date: September 27, 2011
By: Alex Goldman
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Although there has been a recent spike in news stories surrounding aggressive police conduct in Missouri, civil rights attorneys say they have not seen an increase in these types of cases.

Civil rights attorney Steve Ryals of the Ryals Law Firm specializes in police misconduct cases and says he deals with roughly three cases per week regarding the issue. He says he has not seen a recent increase in violent acts among police officers.

"The facts don't suggest a lot of violence or anything more than just an officer sort of throwing his or her weight around," Ryals said.

Ryals says that these kinds of cases vary in their consistency from state to state, and even city to city.

"There are police departments in the St. Louis metropolitan area that I literally have never heard about...There are others where I receive complaints routinely about their officers," Ryals said.

In late August a Columbia police officer, Rob Sanders, was fired for his use of force, treatment of prisoners, and failure to provide medical treatment.

Sanders entered a holding cell at the Columbia police station when a man in custody was yelling for water. The officer burst into the cell and shoved the man to the ground where he hit his head hard on concrete. 

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton was unable to be reached for comment on the story, but the guilty officer has been dismissed from the force.

To add to the perception that police brutality is rising, on Monday a man died in the back of a patrol car after his arrest.

Officers engaged in a physical altercation with the suspect and proceeded to spray him with mace. They placed the suspect in the back of the patrol car after cuffing him. Moments later, the suspect was non-responsive and rushed to a local hospital where he was announced dead, however the cause is unknown at this point.

St. Louis Chief of Police, Daniel Isom, was also unable to be contacted for comment on the situation, but homicide officers are looking deeper into the case to find the cause of death.

Civil rights attorney Gonzalo Fernandez of the St. Louis law firm Devereaux, Stokes, Nolan, Fernandez & Leonard said he deals with a variety of police conduct cases every year, and admitted that there is no such thing as an easy way to deal with police conduct.

"It's a horribly difficult situation for police," Fernandez said. "It's asking cops to make split second decisions."

Fernandez says that police have to use good judgment to avoid putting themselves into these sticky situations, but also says that all suspects have rights that protect them from abuse.

"There are rules and guidelines against excessive force applied to me and you as equally as a homicide suspect," Fernandez said.

Fernandez says he has not seen an increase in these types of cases, yet he admits there has been an increased exposure to them.

"I wouldn't say these types of cases are more frequent, but there is now a heightened sensitivity," Fernandez said.

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