A disturbing photo of a police officer giving a thumbs up sign next to the body of a deceased Black man has raised outrage and upset over social media.
The picture shows 28-year-old Omar Rahman, who was found dead in August in his St. Louis, Missouri, and an unidentified white police officer giving a thumbs up with his left hand and holding Rahman’s arm in the other.
North County Police Cooperative Chief Tim Swope initially declined KMOV’s request to show him the photo and refused to make an on-the-record comment as the department began investigating the photograph. This week, the department released a statement, written by Swope, on the incident.
The letter defends the thumbs up — but offers no explanation for why the officer is seen smiling:
“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.”
According to Swope, the detective taking the photo didn’t know the officer was in it because he was “trained to use the optical view finder when taking police photographs, not the LCD panel.” The detective then took a photo without the officer in it, “consistent with training.”
Again, Swope does not offer an explanation for why the officer is smiling in the first photo.
The letter calls the picture “stolen property” but does not explain how it was stolen or by who, only saying the reporter “knew she was in possession of stolen property.”
“It is unfortunate that KMOV decided to air this photograph without any context, or the wrong context, for the sake of ratings,” Swope wrote, saying the context of the photo “could be misconstrued.”
Swope reported to The Washington Post on Tuesday that the position of the body was consistent with checking for trauma.
“That’s exactly what we were doing,” he said. “There’s no malice there.”
According to Swope, the officer “may have used very poor judgment.”
Kimberly Staton, Rahman’s mother, only found out about the photo after News 4 KMOV showed it to her. And the picture has left Staton with more questions than answers.
“I really don’t know, actually, what happened to my son,” she said.
Staton’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, said in response to Swope’s statement:
“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 actions of the unidentified officer were not consistent with how a law enforcement official should respond to an incident, Staton told KMOV.
“Because when they come to a call, they’re supposed to be there to help and protect, not doing what he was doing with thumbs up and a smirk on his face,” she said.
For Romanucci, who called the photo “hideous,” the context speaks for itself. “The implications of this photograph are just astronomical,” he added.
Romanucci said he’s never seen a photo like the one of Rahman and the officer.
“I have seen thousands and thousands of forensic photographs, I have never seen a staged photograph of an officer next to a deceased body,” he said. He is seeking an external investigation into the photo.
“Who was there that allowed this to go on Was there any Sergeant involved Those are the questions that need to be asked and that’s what needs to be found here,” he said.