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Newly released police video provides harrowing account of officer shot on I-44

Police car (Alexandru Cuznetov/Dreamstime/TNS)

A few dozen times a year patrol officers in Webster Groves assist stranded motorists on Interstate 44, and a car that had come to a stop in the far-left passing lane of the interstate in May seemed no different.

Police Officer Brendan McGahan pulled his cruiser behind the white sedan that had stopped near Elm Avenue. McGahan walked along the left shoulder of the highway, shining his flashlight on the car as he strode closer, then motioned for the driver to roll down his window.

But in an instant the driver, Qavon Webb, flung open the car door and shot McGahan in the chest from about 5 or 6 feet away, dashboard video from McGahan’s cruiser showed. McGahan spun around and fell backward, with Webb firing five more shots while running toward the officer, circling him.

The two struggled and McGahan, still on the ground, managed to return fire with 13 shots in rapid succession, killing the 23-year-old Webb.

The harrowing scene occurred about 8:20 p.m. on May 5. The time between the first and last shots was 19 seconds, all while drivers in cars and tractor-trailers continued to zip by, apparently unaware of what was happening.

McGahan, 36, was shot six times that night but is back at work, celebrating his eighth year as a Webster Groves officer, police Chief Dale Curtis said. McGahan was awarded a purple heart from the department for his actions that night. After watching the video, Curtis said, it’s hard to believe his officer survived the attack.

“It was frankly a miracle,” Curtis said. “The whole thing is kind of surreal.”

Webster Groves released to the Post-Dispatch a 16-minute video from the dashboard camera showing the shooting and its aftermath. The department plans to use the video for firearms training. Officers will experience what McGahan saw as the video plays on a big screen before them.

“They will understand the possibilities for danger even on routine calls, which is what this was supposed to be,” Curtis said.

After the shooting, Curtis asked the St. Louis County Police Department to investigate the case. Seven months later, county police declined to release their investigative report to the Post-Dispatch. The county claims that releasing it “could jeopardize a criminal investigation.” County police Lt. Craig Molden explained in an email that, “Even though the suspect is deceased, the case is still reviewed by the (prosecutor’s) office. We have to wait until we receive a declination letter from them clearing the officer involved.”

County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s spokesman, Christopher King, said last week that county police hadn’t submitted the report to prosecutors yet but would soon.

Webster Groves, meanwhile, said its own internal review determined that its officer acted properly, Curtis said.

“We reviewed this incident mainly from the video and everything we’ve seen, everything he did was appropriate,” Curtis said. “He followed proper procedures. The video speaks for itself.”

McGahan declined an interview request.

Webb’s family has kept a low profile and Webb’s motivation remains unknown. Detectives believed the car stopped due to a mechanical failure. Webb, who lived in Bel-Ridge, had run-ins with police in recent years and three pending cases for municipal violations including marijuana possession and resisting arrest.

The death of Webb — a Black man shot by a white officer — didn’t draw any protests like those seen in response to other police shootings in the region during a summer of civil unrest. A staff attorney with the legal advocacy nonprofit ArchCity Defenders wasn’t immediately familiar with the Webster Groves shooting when the Post-Dispatch mentioned it.

John Chasnoff, an activist who is co-chairman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, said his group tries to examine police shootings that seem suspicious. But when an officer is injured in a shootout, like in the Webster Groves case, the group with its limited resources is less likely to dive in, he said.

Webster Groves officers wear body cameras but Curtis said McGahan’s camera apparently got knocked off in the struggle and rain began falling 15 minutes later, which appeared to have damaged the video, he said.

McGahan was hit first in the chest, his body armor stopping the bullet. Curtis gave the Post-Dispatch a photograph of the officer’s chest that appeared to show a hole. Even though the bullet didn’t penetrate the vest, the trauma from the impact at close range led to dead skin tissue and bruising, Curtis said.

That first bullet knocked McGahan to the ground and more shots followed. The officer dropped his flashlight. It spun around with its beam fixed on the dashboard camera, obscuring his struggle with Webb. Curtis thinks Webb was going for the officer’s gun but said McGahan “doesn’t have a total recollection of everything that happened.”

McGahan returned fire in rapid succession, ending with Webb falling dead on the pavement. Officers are trained to shoot as many rounds as it takes until a threat is neutralized, Curtis said.

McGahan radioed for help, screaming that he’d been hit, and frantically waved to another officer who was parked farther back to block traffic. McGahan then applied his own tourniquet to his bleeding arm.

As the assisting officer watched over Webb’s body and the scene, another officer rushed his wounded colleague to a hospital.

Bullets hit McGahan in the hand, arm and the buttocks, and “there was another one to his leg and a couple in the vest,” Curtis said.

McGahan was back home the next day. He still has one or two bullets lodged in his body. They’re not causing any complications and surgery to remove them would be risky, Curtis said. McGahan returned to work once a doctor and a psychologist cleared him.

The chief said the video will help train Webster Groves officers on how to approach cars “so they’re aware of a real-life situation that can happen.” Webb had opened and closed his car door three times before McGahan approached. In retrospect, such actions could be considered suspicious and prompt an officer to first call for backup, said Curtis, explaining that he wasn’t second-guessing his officer.

“I have no fault with the way he handled it,” Curtis said. “He just thought he was going to assist a motorist. He was motioning with his hand to ask the guy to roll down his window, to ask him what the problem was.”

The chief added, “You can’t assist a motorist with your gun drawn.”


(c) 2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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