Jaco: St. Louis cop culture and the real national emergency

The real national emergency is 1,038 miles northeast of the Mexican border, near the corner of Oriole and Thekla, where 22 shell casings glinted on the pavement and a nine-year old boy lay in the back seat of a black Dodge Charger, bleeding but still alive after a barrage of gunfire from a silver SUV. It’s at Hodiamont and Julian, where a Kenyan immigrant was shot in the head by a 14 and a 16-year old in an attempted carjacking. It’s at Virginia and Courtois, where a man was shot in the back in an argument over a parking space.

Unlike Donald Trump’s made-up emergency over a non-existent crisis at the southern border, loose gun laws, sociopathic gunslingers, and grinding poverty that’s turned so much of St. Louis into a free-fire zone are very real emergencies. And it falls to the under-staffed, under-funded, and scandal-ridden St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to, at the very least, keep the lid on.

According to St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden, the biggest impediment for his officers is the refusal of many people to co-operate with police. And according to former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, the biggest reason for that is a dysfunctional police culture that leads civilians not to trust cops.

In his book “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police,” Stamper writes that the culture of many major police departments “…serves as a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation, brutality, unjustified lethal force, and excessive militarism.” And those, in a nutshell, are the problems facing the St. Louis Police Department.

A bigger problem, though, is the unwillingness of top city officials to recognize that any systemic problem exists. In just a few months, we’ve seen four white city cops indicted by a federal grand jury for beating a black undercover cop, and then covering it up. Two more white officers have been charged with shooting a black man outside a bar. One officer allegedly accidentally killed another in a variation of Russian Roulette. Cases involving 28 city officers will no longer be prosecuted because of charges by the circuit attorney that those cops are habitual liars. And city police are facing a tsunami of federal lawsuits alleging brutality.

To her credit, Mayor Lyda Krewson recognizes that there might be something larger at work than just a few cops behaving badly. When I asked her if the St. Louis Police Department has a racism issue, she replied, “I think St. Louis has an issue with racism. And our police department is likely reflective of St. Louis.”

But Krewson also brushed off suggestions that a corrupt police culture, the kind criticized by former Seattle Chief Stamper, exists. “I think it’s very important for police internal affairs to take action when it’s warranted,” the Mayor said. “But the other thing about that is it doesn’t mean all 1,200 of our officers are having issues.”

Chief Hayden largely agreed that the problem is with individual bad apples on the police force, and with the publicity surrounding the growing number of misconduct allegations levelled at his department.

“The challenge with this type of negative publicity is that is makes people wary and concerned about their police department,” he said. “They way that we’re handling these, with respect to accountability – I think we’re doing a good job with that.”

Mayor Krewson agreed. “Each officer has to take responsibility for their own behavior. We cannot hold other officers responsible for those now being charged or investigated.”

If you pile up enough individual rocks, you get a mountain. And if you pile up enough individual charges of misconduct, brutality, dereliction of duty, and lying, you get a police culture that tolerates, excuses, and in some cases, covers up bad behavior. That sort of culture does three things: It increases civilian distrust of the police. It encourages police to deflect criticism by retreating into an “us-versus-them” Alamo. And most seriously, it interferes with police functioning as a professional law enforcement agency.

The city of St. Louis has one of the planet’s highest per-capita homicide rates. City police make arrests in slightly less than half of all murders. From 2010 to 2016, the St. Louis Police Department shot people at a higher rate than any other major American police force. Add up those individual statistics, and you get a picture of a police department that shoots a lot, but doesn’t prevent much crime.

As Stamper writes, focusing on individual police misdeeds and the “few bad apples” theory leads to police departments “…often ignoring the organizational structure that produces the culture that gives rise to the event.”

Unfortunately, city leaders are ignoring a police culture that has led to violence, indictments, and a seeming inability to control violent crime.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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