A St. Catherine University security officer shot himself in the shoulder Tuesday night, and frightened that his actions would cost him his job, blamed it on a black man who didn't exist.
St. Paul police were immediately skeptical of Brent P. Ahlers' story that he was shot about 9:25 p.m. by the alleged suspect in a wooded area in the southwest side of campus, so they didn't publicize the description of the supposed shooter in a navy blue sweatshirt with a "short Afro."
Nevertheless, the 110-acre campus was put on lockdown for hours as 55 officers, four K-9s and a State Patrol aircraft searched for the suspect.
St. Paul black leaders condemned Ahlers' actions Thursday, the morning after news broke that he had allegedly confessed to the fabrication.
"It's a sickening thing," said Tyrone Terrill, president of the St. Paul African-American Leadership Council. "He put not only black youth at risk, he put St. Paul police and other law enforcement at risk with his lie."
Ahlers, 25, who is white, was arrested Wednesday night after allegedly recanting. He was cited for falsely reporting a crime, a misdemeanor. He was treated for a shoulder wound, booked into the Ramsey County jail and released Thursday morning.
St. Paul police said Ahlers told them Wednesday that the gun went off accidentally in the woods and that he lied about being shot by someone else. Given that authorities only had Ahlers' account for why the gun went off, police Sgt. Mike Ernster said, "We didn't have enough to charge him with reckless discharge of a firearm," a more serious count.
Police have presented the case to the city attorney's office for consideration of charges above and beyond the false-report citation.
Ahlers told police he made up the story because he was afraid of losing his job for bringing his own gun to work, Ernster added. The all-women's Catholic university does not arm its security personnel, the sergeant said. Ernster said he doesn't know whether Ahlers has a state-issued permit to carry a firearm in public.
In a statement posted on the school's website Thursday evening, university President Becky Roloff said Ahlers was terminated Thursday.
"I want to be clear that St. Catherine University strongly condemns racial discrimination, racial stereotyping, and racial profiling of any kind," Roloff said. "The statements attributed to the former employee concerning the race of an alleged suspect are deeply troubling and do not reflect our values."
Ahlers, who lives in St. Louis Park, did not return messages seeking comment about his version of events on the campus in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. A message was also left with his attorney in the case. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 31.
Police did not publicly release the description provided by Ahlers, but it was aired over police radio, posted to a public website and shared on social media by some civilians concerned that the information had not been disseminated.
Emergency dispatch audio described the supposed suspect as a black man with a "short Afro" in a navy blue sweatshirt and black jeans, according to the Police Clips website.
Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said Ahlers' decision to describe the nonexistent suspect as a black man is rooted in the racism that perpetuated slavery and the oppression of blacks for hundreds of years.
"That's what black people live with," she said. "We've been lynched, and we've been put in jail to find out later you haven't done it. That's the sad thing about it. It hasn't stopped."
Ernster said authorities did not disclose the description provided by Ahlers because other information he provided about the shooting made them skeptical.
"I think early on, some of the facts of this case weren't adding up for us," Ernster said. "We didn't have the confidence in the description to act on it."
Ernster said that information sent over police radio based on callers' observations is raw and not vetted. "When information is validated by multiple independent sources … then it becomes more of a valid description," he said.
Ahlers' fabricated account "had basically 1,800 students held captive in their dorm rooms at St. Catherine's," Ernster said Wednesday night, "and it had residents of the Mac-Groveland and Highland Park communities fearing they would be hurt in their homes."
Ahlers worked as a St. Catherine security officer for 15 months, had no prior reports of misconduct and had undergone a thorough background check. He holds an associate degree in law enforcement and completed law enforcement skills training at Hennepin Technical College, Roloff said.
"While we are distressed and saddened that this incident occurred," the president's statement continued, "we are relieved that no other members of the community were injured."
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