CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — A suburban St. Louis police officer who says she meant to use her stun gun but mistakenly grabbed her service revolver was indicted on a second-degree assault charge Wednesday for shooting a suspected shoplifter outside a grocery store.
St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell said Julia Crews, 37, is charged in the April 23 shooting on the parking lot of a Schnucks store in Ladue, one of Missouri’s wealthiest communities. The woman who was shot was seriously hurt, Bell said.
The 33-year-old woman, who is black, remains in a hospital. While authorities said she will survive, her father, Robert Hall, said she is “fighting for her life.” Authorities haven’t released her name, but her family identified her as Ashley Hall.
She hasn’t been charged in the shoplifting.
Crews’ attorney, Travis Noble, said after Bell’s announcement that Crews meant to use her stun gun but mistakenly grabbed her service revolver and shot the woman once. Noble described the officer as “devastated,” and called the shooting a case of “weapon confusion” that didn’t merit the criminal charge.
“The officer pulled what she believed to be her Taser,” Noble said. “Tragic accident.”
The shooting is among at least 13 since 2001 in which officers said they mixed up their guns and stun guns, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David Klinger said. He noted that police officers typically train by drawing their gun, not their stun gun, and that becomes habit.
“Occasionally, what will happen is when police officers move to draw the Taser, which has the same basic feel as a service pistol, they draw the wrong weapon,” Klinger said. Noble said that’s exactly what happened to Crews.
Police were called to the store on a report of a shoplifting. The officer encountered one of two women accused of trying to leave with stolen merchandise. Police said the suspect apparently fell while trying to flee and was complaining about her injuries to the officer.
The officer, who is white and a 13-year veteran of the department, called for an ambulance and tried to handcuff the suspect, Noble said. The woman broke free and began to run.
Noble said the officer drew what she believed to be her stun gun and screamed “‘Taser! Taser! Taser!” The officer realized her mistake as soon as the woman went down, he said.
Bell said the shoplifting case is still under investigation.
Bell was elected prosecutor of Missouri’s largest county last year, upsetting longtime incumbent Bob McCulloch in the August Democratic primary and running unopposed in November.
McCulloch was prosecutor for 28 years and was perceived as a staunch supporter of police, a reputation heightened when he deferred to a grand jury after a white police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, in 2014 in Ferguson. The grand jury declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, who resigned in November 2014. The shooting led to months of often-violent protests.
Bell, who is black, was elected to the Ferguson City Council in April 2015. In his longshot bid to unseat McCulloch, Bell campaigned as a reformist, saying that while he supports police — his father also was an officer — he would hold those who act outside the law accountable.
Klinger said most officers who mistake their gun for their stun gun aren’t charged, typically because prosecutors deem the shootings accidents rather than acts of intentional harm.
But Bell said those other officers were facing threats to their own safety.
“In this case, the officer’s safety was not in question,” Bell said.
A prosecutor in April declined to charge a New Hope, Pennsylvania, police officer who shot inmate Brian Riling during a scuffle inside a police holding cell, ruling the shooting was accidental. The suspect was critically wounded but survived.
Former Lawrence, Kansas, police officer Brindley Blood was charged with aggravated battery in 2018 after shooting a man attacking another officer. Charges were dropped in March after a judge ruled that Blood meant to use the stun gun and grabbed the wrong weapon. Akira Lewis, who is black, survived the shooting and accused the white officers of racial profiling.
White volunteer sheriff’s deputy Robert Bates fatally shot Eric Harris, an unarmed black man, in 2015 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while Harris was on the ground being restrained by other deputies during an illegal gun sale sting. Bates was convicted of manslaughter despite claiming he meant to use the stun gun. He served less than half of a four-year sentence before being paroled.
In the Ladue case, the mother of the woman who was shot said she forgives the officer, who could face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
“I’m going to pray for her and pray for my daughter at the same time,” Karen Carter said.