JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A former police lieutenant forced out of his department after he pointed a semiautomatic rifle at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and threatened to kill them testified this week that his life was “ruined” during the subsequent fight to keep his law enforcement license.
Ray Albers' attorney argued that the former lieutenant “showed great restraint” while policing demonstrations in August 2014 following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
Albers was a lieutenant in the city of St. Ann, a city near Ferguson best known for an infamous and lucrative speed trap. On Aug. 19, 2014, Albers was part of a disorganized police response to protesters, one that involved officers from a number of agencies. During that confrontation, he pointed his weapon at people in a crowd and said "I will fucking kill you" and "Go fuck yourselves" when they asked for his name.
Another officer from the St. Louis County Police Department had to come over and calm Albers down and lower his weapon. Later, when a Huffington Post reporter took photos of Albers from the sidewalk, he said "Get that camera out of my fucking face.” Videos of Albers’ threats spread online, and his career in St. Ann quickly came to an end.
On Wednesday, Albers was at an administrative hearing as the Missouri Department of Public Safety tried to convince a member of the state's Administrative Hearing Commission to take disciplinary action by suspending or permanently revoking the license that allows him to work as an officer.
The state of Missouri says Albers acted "without legal justification" when he pointed his assault rifle at a crowd of people, and that his "threat to commit a felony" -- specifically, murder -- violated Missouri law.
Despite widespread police misconduct in Ferguson in August 2014, Albers is the only officer known to have faced any formal discipline as a result of his or her behavior on the ground. (Dan Page, a veteran officer in the St. Louis County Police Department, was suspended in August 2014 over inflammatory comments he'd made months before, which only came to light after Page pushed a CNN anchor during a live broadcast in Ferguson. Page retired a few days later.)
Albers and his lawyer, Brandi Barth, offered several different defenses for his actions that night. Barth argued it was “unfair” to make Albers “the poster child” for bad policing during the Ferguson protests, and showed off photos of a number of other officers pointing rifles at protesters. Indeed, St. Louis County officers stationed on top of armored vehicles even pointed their sniper rifles at crowds of peaceful protesters in broad daylight a few days after Brown’s death, a tactic that drew widespread condemnation.
“There’s selective enforcement against Mr. Albers, in a situation where we have now seen at least a dozen officers in the selected photos having their rifles raised,” Barth said. “This situation of 30 seconds in a 20-year career has literally ruined his life.”
Video footage from the night in question clearly shows Albers pointing his rifle at people who were recording police activity. He can be seen advancing in their direction as they stood on the sidewalk. But Albers claimed that he was “approached by a mob of people” and that he only raised his weapon because he saw a black male with a handgun. He says he was hit by a bottle filled with urine a few minutes before the incident, and that when he raised his weapon, he had it trained on the man with a gun he'd spotted.
“I seen about a half a dozen black males come out of the east side of Sam’s Meat Market. They all had bandanas wrapped around their face, like an outlaw-type bandana,” Albers testified. “Two of them at least [who] came out had Molotov cocktails. The other one had a handgun... ready to go."
However, in each of the three videos played during the hearing, Albers can be seen pointing his gun toward various people in the crowd. At no point does he appear to be pursuing the supposed "man with a gun" he describes -- in fact, no such man can be seen in the videos. Albers was also a long distance away from Sam’s Meat Market at the point when he claims to have seen individuals carrying Molotov cocktails and a handgun.
In an interview with a talk radio host in February, Albers said that “total survival mode” kicked in the night of the incident. He said he had “tunnel vision” when he supposedly spotted the man with the handgun. He also suggested that he thought the people recording him were going to try to take his weapon and use it against him.
"I thought at that time that the only reason they would be coming towards me is to hurt me and take my weapon," Albers said in that interview. "You don't come towards an officer that has a rifle raised. Nobody in their right mind would do that unless they had bad intentions."
But this week, Albers said he didn’t have his rifle raised at anyone in particular.
“I never pointed my rifle at anyone,” Albers testified. “I was using that scope with the laser to find that individual with a weapon. Like I said, those people came towards me.”
Although the videos clearly show Albers walking toward individuals on the sidewalk with his rifle raised, Albers claimed the only time he pointed his weapon at anyone was “when people were approaching me.”
Albers says there was never a time that he worked in Ferguson when he was not afraid for his safety. He described his time there as “total, utter chaos.”
Albers joined the St. Ann Police Department full-time in 1996. He said he loved the job, calling it his “everything.” He testified that he'd worked a 12-hour shift with mandatory overtime the day before he reported for additional duty in Ferguson.
“I was working 18 to 20 hours a day,” said Albers. “St. Ann had mandatory overtime detail. They made the officers work [Interstate] 70 to write tickets.”
Lt. Garrett Willis, the lead firearms instructor in St. Ann until his recent retirement, testified that an officer is not allowed to scan a crowd with his or her firearm because the possibility of accidental discharge is “a threat to innocent people.”
Willis said that when there’s an individual with a gun in the crowd, an officer should go into a “low-ready” position -- a stance where the officer has his or her gun pointed downward.
“You scan with your eyes,” Willis said. “You should never raise your weapon unless it’s a threat.”
Barth said that while Albers' language was inappropriate, it was “not cause for discipline” because he was in a stressful environment and other police officers had their rifles pointed at peaceful demonstrators.
“He raised his rifle and asked people to ‘get the fuck back,’" Barth said. "That’s what happened, and unfortunately he became the media poster boy for bad behavior."
John Wall of the St. Louis County Police Department stepped in and lowered Albers’ rifle during the Aug. 19 incident, physically putting pressure on the weapon until it was no longer pointing at the crowd. Wall said this week that officers shouldn’t raise their rifles unless they intend to shoot.
“Nothing good was going to happen there,” Wall said when asked why he'd helped lower Albers' rifle. “The optics were horrible. We had already been getting enough bad press.”
Wall said he “was not fearful” despite the violence that surrounded the protests. He also said he didn't believe he was in danger when people were filming him. “I know I could’ve been killed," he said, "but it’s my job to stand out there."
Albers will find out his fate in the next few months, when the member of Missouri's Administrative Hearing Commission who heard this week's case makes a ruling on whether Albers' behavior was cause for discipline.
“There wasn’t a single officer down there that wanted to kill anybody,” Albers told The Huffington Post following his hearing. "Including me."
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.