When a white cop shot a black teen to death on the streets of a St. Louis inner-ring suburb, Kevin Ewing’s mind flashed to an earlier racially-tinged shooting that might have taken place there—his planned assassination of his police supervisor.
Ewing, at the time a patrol officer in a town next to Ferguson, had picked out the spot for the killing. The hour. The Dumpster to stow the body. The escape route.
A surprise phone call from a buddy rescued Ewing from his plan. It set him on a more productive path, one that eventually led to a new way of helping keep the peace here in New Haven.
Twenty-five years later, his plan to shoot his sergeant has never escaped his mind. The Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, brought back all the racial and military-policing tensions that underlay Ewing’s own fateful time in the area. The subsequent outbreak of protest and of police violence there, which stunned the nation, came as no surprise to him.
“It was a matter of time,” Ewing said, “before people got fed up and acted up.” He knows from experience.
Hospital, Then Jail
People in New Haven who know Ewing—and many people in New Haven do—know “Rev Kev” as a warm, open, gentle man who works tirelessly to stop violence, talk through tensions, not as someone who would consider resorting to murdering a racist boss.
A minister with a Yale Divinity degree, he preaches at a Hartford church and recently completed extended fill-in stints at the pulpits of New Haven’s Church of Redeemer and United Church on the Green. A veteran community organizer, he trains grassroots leaders through a “Neighborhood Initiators” program. Through groups like Frontline Souljaz, he helps young men who’ve had trouble with the law turn around their lives. He has volunteered his time on countless civic boards, from the West River Neighborhood Corporation and the Economic Development Commission to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. He also was a founding member of the Grove coworking space on Orange Street, which he recently reopened as a digital media hub called Grove Studios.
In an interview at the Grove, Ewing, who’s 53, recalled his painful experiences as a St. Louis-area cop as an example of how the environment created by “oppressive” policing can bring out the worst in people. It certainly transformed him into someone he never wanted to be, he said.
Ewing grew up on St. Louis’s North Side. Everyone in his neighborhood was black except for two families. (“They didn’t get the memo about white flight. They looked up one day—and everybody was gone.”) From an early age he saw police hassle friends, relatives; his father told stories of being abused on his way home from work as far back as the 1940s. By the time he was 11 Kevin was being stopped on the street by a white police officer upon leaving church choir practice during random searches for black criminal suspects.
“Police were at best a nuisance we tolerated,” he recalled.
Ewing and his parents made sure he left the neighborhood’s borders to know the wider world. He acted in theater. He attended a half-white, half-black experimental high “school without walls” (similar to New Haven’s original version of High School in the Community).
During college Ewing worked as a security guard. Following the lead of a friend, he decided to “do it for real” and apply to become a cop.
Why do you want to become a cop? Ewing recalled being asked at his interview.
His answer: “I want to make sure there’s at least one honest cop on the force.”
“They looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “One started laughing.”
He completed a cadet program at the St. Louis police academy in 1983 (his class is pictured) and obtained an auxiliary officer’s badge. He subsequently completed the St. Charles County Law Enforcement Academy in 1984, becoming a fully sworn cop. He took a position with the force in Kinloch, one of the tiny commuter suburbs scattered outside the St. Louis city line. It shared a border with the town of Ferguson.
In September 1985 he moved to a patrol position in Olivette.
“I was the black cop,” he recalled. The mostly white town always had one black cop, to qualify for federal grants, he said. It always had one Jewish cop. One female cop. He and his fellow officers were trained to view citizens as subjects to be controlled, not as people to help and interact with, he said. They were soldiers. “They called it a paramilitary force.” That was before people started talking about “community policing.”
Yes, the police in Olivette were racist, Ewing recalled. They were disrespectful, sometimes violent, in dealing with the small, concentrated African-American population in town. But the bigger problem was that the cops were disrespectful, period, he said. In Olivette and in the surrounding towns. “It was not mostly racial,” he said. “it was a complete disregard for the rights of people.”
Still, there were differences among the departments. Ewing learned that in chasing suspects in Olivette, whether by foot or by car, all he had to do was steer the pursuit toward the Ferguson town line. Seriously. The fleeing suspect would stop there rather than cross the line.
“If we got them, they would go to jail,” he recalled. “If they got to Ferguson, they would go to the hospital—and then jail.”
A Ram Appears
Ewing tried to be a different kind of cop in Olivette. He got to know African-Americans in particular, hung out at softball games, helped people out. In return, someone black with a warrant out on him would agree to surrender to police if he could surrender to Ewing.
But Ewing found that too many of his colleagues adopted the rough, adversarial approach—and that it at times rubbed off on him.
“I got a car stopped on old Bonhomme with four bucks in it,” Ewing, on patrol one night, heard a lieutenant report on the radio.
“What do you mean?” Ewing asked. He knew the lieutenant was referring to four black men. Nevertheless, Ewing recalled telling the lieutenant: “I’m going to call animal control—and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. You’ve got four deer driving in a car.”
“I hated my job. I hated some of the people I worked with,” he said. “They were insensitive, dishonest, the way they treated people.
“It was not mostly race. It was a complete disregard for the rights of people”—such as the time he saw a superior break into a home after responding to a false alarm while the home’s occupants were out of town.
One night toward the end of his tenure, Ewing was working the desk. A young rookie, white and maybe 23 or 24, brought in an African-American man in his 60s for a traffic violation.
“Come on boy,” the rookie told the man. He kept addressing the man as “boy” as he questioned him.
“Look, I’m old enough to be your great grandfather. Quit calling me ‘boy’!” the man finally exclaimed, standing up.
The rookie “took him down, recuffed him,” as Ewing watched. The rookie added new charges against the man: resisting arrest, assault.
Before the rookie wrote up the report, Ewing approached him. Having witnessed the event, Ewing said, he would not back up the officer’s account. “You provoked that,” Ewing told him.
The rookie “said something smart.” Next Ewing knew, he had the rookie slammed up against a wall.
“Don’t you ever talk to a man like that. This is a human being,” Ewing recalled saying. “If I ever see you doing something like that again, I’ll put two in your head.”
Ewing realized he was reaching “the edge—trying to be a compassionate guy and trying to [fit] in this paramilitary organization. I was becoming a mean, nasty person. I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I was drinking a case of beer every three days.” On one traffic stop, he found himself “smashing” a black driver in the head when he reached into the glove compartment after twice refusing orders to keep his hands on a steering wheel. Officers sometimes justify such actions with the argument that, for all they knew, the suspect could have been reaching for a gun. Ewing knew in his heart, he said, that the man wasn’t reaching for a gun. He was startled and confused.
After observing instances of blatant racism by his colleagues, Ewing would sometimes leave business cards from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in noticeable places.
One particular member of the force was getting on his nerves—a white sergeant to whom he reported. The sergeant was outwardly racist, Ewing said. He regularly used racist language, regularly insulted Ewing. He was generally mean and nasty.
Ewing wasn’t sure how to respond. One night the sergeant came into the station when Ewing was working the desk. He told Ewing he and his wife had just seen the movie Mandingo, a film derided by reviewers as “racist trash” and “almost fetishistically racist.” (One list of the “most racist films of all time” ranked it number two—right under the classic Ku Klux Klan homage The Birth of a Nation.) The sergeant started describing the movie in detail to Ewing.
“I saw the movie. I didn’t like the movie,” Ewing told him. “I don’t want to hear this.”
The sergeant insisted on continuing to describe the scenes. Finally Ewing stood up and grabbed his keys. Leaving the room for his patrol car, he told the sergeant, “if you want to sit and tell the story, you can watch over the desk.”
Ewing tried to deal with the pressure of the job by looking beyond it. He finished up his college degree.
But that didn’t do the trick. In early 1989, toward the end of his tenure, he plotted revenge.
“I had a plan,” he said, “to kill my sergeant.”
He knew the sergeant regularly took a break on the night shift to go Dumpster diving. The Dumpster was in a remote spot by some woods.
Ewing learned the precise time the sergeant would make that stop. He scoped it out. He procured a gun for the job. He learned what day of the week the Dumpster was emptied; he planned to carry out the shooting the night before so the body would be carted away.
“I rehearsed it,” Ewing recalled. “By the railroad tracks, where I’d have my best shot.” He selected an escape route through the woods, walked it for practice.
He was serious about it, he said. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know where to go”
As he rehearsed the killing, thought out the ramifications (having to serve on the investigation, for instance), he received a phone call from his best friend, who had left his job as a cop to become a pastor.
It was, Ewing said, reaching for a biblical reference, “my ram in the bush.”
I’m moving to Florida, the friend said. In two weeks. You and two other buddies are coming with me. I waited until now to tell you this, the friend said, so you wouldn’t try to talk me out of it.
You’re right, Ewing said. I would have tried to talk you out of it.
Ewing put in his resignation. Two weeks later he headed to Cocoa Beach, and to a new life.
In Florida, Ewing helped at his friend’s church. He caught fish to eat. He migrated to New York City, where he pursued some off-Broadway tech work, ending up producing shows (including then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s weekly program) for a government access TV station. A job with The Hartford insurance company brought him to Connecticut. He had an operations management job, a big salary, a house in Bloomfield—and a feeling of emptiness. After seven years he ditched it for the seminary, first in Hartford, then, in 2005, at Yale. He paid the bills as a community organizer in Fair Haven and West River. A career blossomed, a combination of spiritual and activist and entrepreneurial work; he became a mainstay of the city, a force for change and reconciliation. He also developed a love for sailboats, falling in with a crew of racers in Essex.
Throughout, his police experience continued to haunt him. He very well may have never carried out the shooting of his sergeant, of course; lots of people fantasize revenge against abusive bosses, even if they don’t draw up specific plans for a murder.
“I probably would have gotten caught,” Ewing reflected. Then, he said, “I probably would have never done it.”
As he tackles New Haven’s violence problem as an activist, he has gained admiration for many of the city’s cops. He applauds community policing. Yes, New Haven has racial problems and policing problems like any other community—but not of the intensity he saw in St. Louis’s suburban inner-ring. He has seen wanted men request to surrender to top Hill cop Lt. Holly Wasilewski the way they used to request surrendering to him in Missouri, he said. He spoke of how he has seen other top cops, like Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova, Fair Haven’s Lt. Herb Johnson, Dixwell’s Sgt. Sam Brown, build people’s trust.
He said he hopes that Michael Brown’s killing becomes a “Rosa Parks incident,” that the charged discussion sparked by the incident and subsequent riots will continue not just in Ferguson, but nationally. Including in New Haven.
“If we limit this [discussion] to being black versus white, we’re not doing it justice,” he said. “This is a very complicated and complex issue. We should separate as much as we can the issue of police versus civilians and the issue of race.”
Thinking back to how his environment affected his behavior as a Missouri cop, Ewing spoke of how the same colleagues who could be “assholes” much of the time could also show humanity.
That white rookie who kept calling the older black man “boy,” for instance.
On another occasion, Ewing recalled, he and the rookie responded to the home of an African-American woman. She had overdosed on drugs. The officers found two children in the house. They were around 5 and 7 years old.
The rookie “took care of the kids, kept them calm,” Ewing recalled. “It was amazing to watch him connect with those kids.” That rookie probably kept in touch with those kids for years to come, perhaps even to this day, Rev Kev declared. He is sure of it.