Court Filings Shine Light on Racial Tensions in St. Louis-Area Police Forces

A local minority police union says the battle against systemic racism within police departments has raged forever and is an issue throughout the country.

Protesters march in the streets of St. Louis on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in response to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who killed a Black motorist six years prior. (Courthouse News photo/Joe Harris)

ST. LOUIS (CN) — Luther Hall was just doing his job and he got beaten by his fellow police officers for it.

Hall, who is Black, was working undercover in St. Louis monitoring protests on Sept. 17, 2017, that stemmed from the not-guilty verdict two days earlier of Jason Stockley, a white city police officer accused of killing a Black man following a high-speed pursuit.

Four white officers mistook Hall for a protester and beat and arrested him without probable cause. The indictment against the officers, who still face federal charges, said they sent each other text messages before the protest expressing excitement about using unjustified force against demonstrators and going undetected while doing so.

While such actions may shock the conscience of most, it came as no surprise to some.

“It’s not shocking to us,” said retired Sergeant Heather Taylor, spokesperson for the Ethical Society of Police, a minority police union. “It’s shocking to everyone else, but it’s something that we’ve dealt with forever that we’ve been fighting forever.”

Hall, who is still employed by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, suffered multiple injuries including herniated discs. Recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the city has agreed to pay Hall a $5 million settlement that has yet to be finalized.

Days after news of the settlement broke, Troy Doyle filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County. Doyle claimed County Executive Sam Page promised to make him the county’s first Black police chief, but caved to political pressure and hired Mary Barton, a white woman, instead.

Within a week, the two largest police entities in the St. Louis region were each dealing with legal cases involving accusations of systematic racism.

The Forgotten Mission

The motto of police is “to serve and protect.” But who they are serving and protecting is a matter of debate.

“It’s not untrue for segments of the community who gets to get served and protected by police” to feel secure with the level of policing in their neighborhoods, said John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. “But the other mission, which is not often talked about, is to work on behalf of the upper classes and manage the lower classes, and essentially repress and contain the lower classes.”

Chasnoff said that a permanent underclass of racial minorities has been created in America and the unwritten rule of policing is to keep that group subservient.

“Both those missions are really central to the police department and we do focus a lot that American policing came out of slave-catching slave patrols, but the other half of that story is that it also came out of the early 19th century experiments in England in the creation of the London Metropolitan Police Department,” Chasnoff said.

The London Metropolitan Police Department was designed by Sir Robert Peel’s experiences in suppressing worker revolts in Ireland and the Irish Rebellion.

That tradition continues in St. Louis with the city department’s official name – the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Enter the Ethical Society of Police.

It was founded in 1972 by African American police officers to address race-based discrimination within the community and the city police force. In 2018, the union expanded to the St. Louis County Police Department.

Doyle is a member of the union. The county executive did not respond to an email requesting comment on Doyle’s lawsuit.

“We deal with racism,” said Taylor. “We’ve dealt with it in the city, and we transitioned over to the county, so it’s not new to us.”

Dueling Unions

The St. Louis Police Officers Association boasts a larger membership and is the collective bargaining agent of the men and women of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

The SLPOA is often at odds with the Ethical Society of Police.

The Stockley incident highlighted the differences between the groups.

“I said Jason Stockley was guilty of murder, I believe to this day Jason Stockley got away with murder,” Taylor said. “I received death threats and some of those death threats came from police officers, wives, former police officers. I had my own police officers call me cunt, B-I-T-C-H, just unbelievable things that they said because I exposed their racism and because I said that Jason Stockley was guilty.”

Protesters march in the streets of St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2017, in response to the acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley. (Courthouse News photo/Joe Harris).

Taylor said the SLPOA stood by Stockley, while admonishing her.

“I remember the Fraternal Order of Police saying that I was out of line for making the statement of his guilt. No. What are we supposed to say?” she said.

SLPOA Business Manager Jeff Roorda declined an interview request.

Stockley’s case is one example of race issues within the city police department.

Before Stockley, there was Milton Green, an off-duty Black police officer who was shot by a white officer in front of his home even after identifying himself and showing his badge.

Green sued the city in 2019, claiming the SLPOA raised $2,000 for the officer who shot him but did no fundraising for him.

Taylor said this is part of a pattern of behavior in the SLPOA.

“Jason Stockley, it wasn’t his first incident – probably his first time committing murder, and getting away with it, but that wasn’t his first complaint,” she said. “He had previous complaints in South Patrol. So, you have these people that are problems if they’re bailed out by police unions who believe that their job is to save their job no matter what.”

Prosecutor Controversy

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner ran on a platform of criminal justice reform. Since taking office, she has been at odds with the SLPOA and even sued the union, claiming racial discrimination.

Gardner, the city’s first Black circuit attorney, eventually saw her lawsuit dismissed but won reelection in November as a wave of progressive Democrats like herself and Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush won hotly contested elections.

After her first election in 2016, Gardner issued an exclusion list consisting of officers who were prohibited from presenting cases for prosecution due to credibility issues. As of September, there were 75 officers on the list, which also includes a ban on search warrant approvals.

Gardner’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the list.

Though Roorda with the SLPOA declined comment for this article, he has been outspoken on his feelings on Gardner in the past, including during a press conference the day after she filed her now-dismissed lawsuit in which he called her the worst prosecutor in the country.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

Taylor doesn’t agree with all of the names on the list, but believes most of them deserve to be on it.

“You cannot trust the words of someone who has been caught lying in a police report,” the minority union spokeswoman said. “If you’ve been caught lying you should be fired and prosecuted. There are officers who have been caught lying in police reports, lying on the stand, a history of misconduct and have posted racist, homophobic things on social media [and] absolutely should be excluded from giving testimony.”

A Kick in the Face

Barton became the first female chief in the St. Louis County Police Department history in March 2020. But her first year has been anything but smooth.

Barton, who is white, drew criticism last June when she told the county council that “to say there’s systemic racism in the police department is overly broad and probably not accurate.” But just last month, her brother-in-law was relieved of duty for allegedly using the N-word over the radio in reference to a Black police sergeant.

Taylor said the dispatcher is no longer employed by the department, but no details as to whether he retired or was fired have been made public. Making matters worse, she said, the department’s February newsletter that celebrated Black History Month also thanked the dispatcher for his service.

“Officers, once again, they’re triggered,” Taylor said. “They’re like, ‘you’re thanking someone who said the N-word on the radio in reference to African Americans during Black History Month in the same newsletter?’ My goodness!”

Taylor said it felt like a kick in the face.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Barton took heat over a guest instructor who repeatedly used the N-word and who also made racist and sexist comments towards Hispanics and women. The department terminated the instructor’s contract.

A spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Police Department declined an interview request.

Chasnoff said racism has always been rampant within the police ranks.

“It’s really built into the DNA of our policing structures,” Chasnoff said. “If you look at the history of Black officers being integrated into the police force in the early days, they weren’t allowed to arrest white people. There’s always been this reluctance to involve the people in policing who are the people that you’re essentially designed to keep under control.”

The Ethical Society of Police has extended to St. Louis County despite longstanding efforts of resistance by leaders. Taylor said former Chief Jon Belmar and former County Executive Steven Stenger opposed the minority union.

Page, the current county executive, welcomed the group, but under certain conditions.

“He wanted us to remove language that said we exist because of systemic racism, that we exist to represent African American officers in the community, basically, that are marginalized, he wanted that language out,” Taylor said. “He didn’t want people to essentially think that they had a problem with racism.”

Political Ties

In January, state Senator Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, introduced a bill that would allow the use of deadly force against protesters on private property and give immunity to drivers who run over protesters blocking traffic.

It was in direct response to nationwide protests last summer over the police killing of George Floyd and an incident in St. Louis in which a white couple waved guns at hundreds of civil rights protesters in front of their home.

The SLPOA and the Kansas City Police Union both supported the bill, to the dismay of Taylor.

“We are in a state that is open carry,” Taylor said. “And we’re also in a state that recognizes the castle doctrine. So, someone that’s armed and has a right to carry a gun as a protester sees a car trying to run over some kids who are protesting during a school walkout, and they shoot and kill the driver. It’s a powder keg and you have a police association that’s supporting it.”

The SLPOA endorsed nearly a straight ticket of Republican candidates, including former President Donald Trump, in the last election.

The endorsement of Trump, who vocally opposed Black Lives Matter protests and who once bragged he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support, was not echoed by the Ethical Society of Police.

Then came the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. A police officer was killed in the riot and Trump was impeached for a second time for encouraging his followers’ actions.

“So, you have a president who has this thought process that it’s okay to hurt people and do harm to them and you have law enforcement that follows that,” Taylor said. “And you have these police associations that basically endorsed Donald Trump as the law-and-order president in ‘16, in 2020. And at that time, we had this clear picture of a problem with…white supremacy ideologies being accepted in law enforcement.”

A St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department vehicle. (Photo from Scott/Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

That outlook isn’t just a St. Louis problem. Police departments across America are dealing with the same types of issues.

“You have so much happening,” Taylor said. “It’s everywhere, small towns, just replace the city and the state. You’re going to have the same problems in law enforcement, the disconnect internally, the internal problems with officers in police associations.”

Baby Steps

The Ethical Society of Police submitted a pair of reports outlining the issues of racism in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, one in 2016 and another in 2020. Taylor said they have been met with very little change in the department’s policies.

“Honestly, there is little hope outside of filing lawsuits, and just because you file a lawsuit doesn’t mean you resolve the matter,” she said. “There may be a settlement, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to do away with systemic racism, problems with how they address the LGBTQ [community], it doesn’t mean that it’s going to end.”

Taylor is disappointed in the lack of response by Jimmie Edwards, a former circuit judge who was appointed St. Louis’ director of public safety in 2017. Edwards, who is Black, did not respond to an email requesting comment.

“The problem is the response of management, people in management positions in law enforcement,” Taylor said. “Just because someone’s African American, cannot bypass the fact that they can also contribute to the systemic issues that perpetuate racism. Judge Jimmy Edwards is a clear example of that. You have so much, so many different hurdles to overcome, that there is no way to win that race.”

The minority union also sent a 10-point letter to Barton in December outlining areas to combat systematic racism within the St. Louis County Police Department.

Barton answered with an eight-point letter that pledged a commitment to recruit and maintain 20% African American and 10% minority commissioned personnel as well as a concerted effort to recruit more women.

Chasnoff said significant structural changes need to be made to fully make a dent in systemic racism within the system. He said one big part of that is deemphasizing the role of seniority as the major decider in the promotion process, which tends to favor white officers because they tend to stay longer for a variety of reasons.

Another would be eliminating internal affairs divisions that investigate and hand down discipline from fellow police officers. Instead of police officers policing themselves, Chasnoff favors moving that function into the public sector where there is more transparency.

He said gaining local control of the city police department in 2013 was a positive step, after voters passed a ballot measure doing away with the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners that ran the department. But there is still progress to be made.

“The county still has a police Board of Commissioners and those commissions tend to represent the conservative elite, often business interests,” Chasnoff said.

Taylor said the collective bargaining agreement that favors seniority is likely to be around for the foreseeable future, but her union has made some strides in trimming it down to give minority officers a more level playing field for promotion.

“Baby steps are better than no steps,” she said.

Protesters march in the streets of St. Louis on Sept. 15, 2017, in response to the acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley. (Courthouse News photo/Joe Harris)
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