Slain St. Louis officer was alone because of lack of manpower

By Clay Barbour and Patrick M. O'Connell
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Officer Down: Norvelle Brown

ST. LOUIS Mo. — When St. Louis police officer Norvelle Brown turned his squad car into a darkened alley Wednesday night, the 22-year-old rookie was on his own.

Despite being less than 11 months removed from the Police Academy, Brown was on patrol without a partner. It's a tough reality for St. Louis police, but hardly a new one, officers say.

"We just don't have the manpower," said Kevin Ahlbrand, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

Brown was shot by an unknown assailant in the alley, but as of Thursday, investigators still didn't know exactly what happened that night.

The young officer was on patrol a few blocks northwest of Sherman Park when he saw a group standing in an alley in the 1600 block of Semple Avenue around 9:40 p.m. He got out of his car but didn't ask for backup. Moments later, he called dispatch, said shots had been fired and that he was hit.

Police are looking for two men who witnesses saw running from the scene. Brown was shot in the back of his left shoulder, just at the edge of his Kevlar vest. The angle of the wound suggests Brown was crouching to protect himself, police said. Brown was able to get off one shot.

Two guns were found in the alley: a .38-caliber revolver and a .357-caliber Magnum. Investigators believe one of the firearms is the murder weapon.

After the shooting, officers canvassed the area, supported by the K-9 unit and a helicopter, but they didn't find the two or three people who ran from the alley.

At a news conference Thursday, Police Chief Joe Mokwa said every patrol car in the city's 7th District, where Brown was shot, was manned with only one officer. "The reality is we don't have adequate numbers to make everyone ride in two-man cars," Mokwa said.

While not every call requires two officers, the chief said, "From a safety standpoint, do I wish every car had two officers? I do."


Early Thursday, family and friends gathered at Brown's mother's house in the 2200 block of Warren Street. About 30 people stood on the lawn of the two-story house, consoling one another and planning for the funeral.

Brown lived in the house while attending Vashon High School, where he played football and ran track.

Vashon head football coach Reggie Ferguson remembered Brown, dubbed "Cheeto" by friends, as a good defensive back and an even better person.

"He was hardworking and straightforward," Ferguson said. "If he told you he would do something, he did it."

Ferguson said Brown remained a presence with the team as a mentor to the new players. News of his death hit many of them hard.

"They are hurting right now," Ferguson said. "We all are."

Brown did not drink alcohol, friends and family said. And working with young people seemed to be a recurring theme in his life. So did his goal of public service.

Brown considered a career as a lawyer before deciding he wanted to be a police officer, family members said. He even rode with officers to get a feel for the job before joining the academy.

"He loved his job; he loved it," said Mark Harris, Brown's uncle. "He was keeping the streets safe. We never did think nothing like this was going to happen. ... There's no words to explain how you feel."

Gerald White, a family friend, last saw Brown outside the family home Monday. As Brown left the house on the way to his car, White said he honked his horn and waved. Brown waved back, but the two didn't get the chance to talk.

Four days later, White stared through the windshield of his SUV as he remembered the moment. "I wish I would have stopped."

Charlie Bean Jr. was a mentor to Brown during the young officer's high school days. Bean's job was to identify students with talent who needed direction.

From the start, Bean was impressed with Brown's resolve. The student was always willing to help and had a driving desire to do something for others.

"That was a young man with a future," Bean said. "He was an angel in disguise."

It was Bean who recommended that Brown either join the military or become a policeman. He even wrote Brown's letter of recommendation.

Reached Thursday, Bean was still wrestling with the loss. At times he struggled to find the words. "I can't blame myself," he said. "We can't predict what's going to happen. But I'm hurting right now."

Several family members questioned why Brown was alone on patrol. Such questions are not new to Ahlbrand, the police officers association president, which has about 1,152 members.

St. Louis has become an increasingly dangerous place for police, he said. "We have had six guys shot in the past two years. That's astounding."

And while the simple answer is hiring more officers, Ahlbrand said he understands the fiscal reality that the city can only afford so many. "Across the country, in urban areas, two-officer cars is generally the rule," Ahlbrand said. "That's the way it was here when I started. That's the way it needs to be again."

Copyright 2007 St. Louis Dispatch

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