ST. LOUIS — As Joe Mack lay trapped in a traffic crash along Interstate 270 in Missouri, he listened, perplexed, to a peculiar exchange between a police officer and a firefighter.
The two argued over who was in charge, and whether a firetruck was going to be moved to unblock traffic.
Both won. The firetruck stayed, and Officer Todd Greeves handcuffed fire Capt. David Wilson and marched him to a patrol car.
Although Mack has healed, the rescuers’ dispute has not. Wilson is seeking damages in a civil rights lawsuit now on trial in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.
Mack told jurors Tuesday that he had been hit so hard from behind by another vehicle on May 12, 2003, that his seat back broke and his radio popped out of the dash.
The wreckage was in one of the exit lanes at McDonnell Boulevard. Police blocked that lane and the slow lane of 270 northbound.
The Robertson Fire Protection District truck in which Wilson arrived parked in a way that blocked another lane to the left. Wilson, with the district nearly 27 years, testified that his crew needed the room to work safely, and that he believed he was in charge.
Wilson admitted that he heard and ignored Greeves’ warning that someone would be arrested if the truck wasn’t moved. He said he was “startled and dumbfounded” when he was cuffed, and upset and angry that Greeves was interfering.
The fire captain said he felt at risk sitting in Greeves’ car, the first emergency vehicle that passing traffic would encounter.
Wilson was released after Greeves called a supervisor, and no charges were ever filed.
The handcuff scrapes on his wrists quickly faded, Wilson said, but not his memories and the continued ribbing of police officers and his fellow firefighters.
“It’s something that stays with you,” he told jurors.
Greeves, who has been with the Hazelwood police almost 13 years, told jurors that he had handled hundreds of accidents and believed rescue workers were safe without the extra lane. He said that his job that day had been traffic control, and that he feared another blocked lane would cause confusion, a bottleneck and perhaps another collision.
He said he had arrested Wilson for impeding traffic flow and failing to obey his lawful order.
Wilson’s suit, filed in 2006, seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages on claims of false arrest, battery and violation of his civil rights. He also seeks attorneys’ fees and costs.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Ann Medler has already ruled that Greeves did not have probable cause to arrest Wilson, and that under state law, “Captain Wilson and his crew were enHedd to park their fire engine irrespective of the traffic laws and/or city ordinances.”
But her ruling also says that “reasonable minds could differ as to whether” Greeves should have known that he was violating Wilson’s rights.
Medler removed the city as a defendant, leaving only Greeves. The jury is expected to begin deliberating today.
A similar incident in St. Louis in the 1980s was quietly worked out with the police chief, former city Fire Chief Neil Svetanics confirmed Tuesday.
Now chief of the Lemay Fire Protection District, Svetanics said that when police and firefighters are on a scene, the “principal participants” are in charge. That means the firefighters, he explained, if they are rescuing someone or putting out a fire.
“We’re both in a very dangerous job,” Svetanics said, adding that working beside traffic is “one of the most dangerous aspects” of the job.[email protected] — 314-621-5154