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Out of control? St. Louis police struggle with negative headlines

ST. LOUIS – It has been a trying year for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. You need look no farther than the seemingly endless slew of headlines.

There was the case of a white officer shooting an off-duty African-American officer. A game of Russian roulette ended the life of a young officer. Dozens were implicated in an investigation of racist social media posts. The city’s prosecutor now refuses to let some officers appear in court. There have been lawsuits over excessive force, and more.

Some are asking if the police department is out of control.

“Well, I think that’s unfair,” Jimmie Edwards, the city’s public safety director, said in an interview. “I think that when you look at the St. Louis police department and you look at its culture, we didn’t get here overnight.”

Where you will find the St. Louis police are is largely a function of whom you ask; and many are likely to answer, in some way, by referring to the events in and around Ferguson five years ago.

“I think certainly prior to Ferguson in 2014, the relationship between police and the community was fragile,” Edwards said. “It continues to be fragile.”

Ferguson comes up again, but in a very different way, when you ask the police union about that fragile relationship.

Of course there has been plenty of discussion about a perceived adversarial relationship between some officers and area residents since the unrest. But Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, said his rank and file had no issue with those they policed.

“No, not toward the community,” he said. “They have an adversarial feel toward some elected officials and some folks in the media who disparage police and do so based on a false narrative that came out of Ferguson and other places.”

But many believe the controversies we’re seeing right now have roots that run far deeper than the unrest of 2014.

SLMPD Sgt. Heather Taylor has a particularly interesting take. She is head of the Ethical Society of Police, the group that advocates for the city’s African-American officers. She said all the headlines were a function of a new accountability. The behavior, she said, has been there – just not the punishment.

“I honestly feel that a lot of these cases wouldn’t see the light of day if we didn’t have the chief that we have, the restructured internal affairs, and a circuit attorney who is willing to prosecute officers who are doing wrong,” she said. “When people say we are out of control, I’m just glad we are bringing some of these cases to light, because some of these people we knew should have been fired long ago. They have been problems. We have presented cases, and it’s, ‘No, nothing. We’re sweeping under the rug.’ And now these things are coming to light.”

One example is a list of officers Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner now keeps of officers she will not allow to testify in court. It’s called an exclusion list. For a variety of reasons, she says the officers on it lack credibility.

The most notable case: 22 city officers whom Gardner “blacklisted” after they were named in an investigation called the Plain View Project, which tied dozens of current and former St. Louis officers to racist social media posts.

“It continues to fuel the mistrust in the criminal justice system, and it makes our jobs harder,” Gardner said in an interview with MetroSTL.com’s Jaco Report in July. “So it hurts that victim who wants to call the police and is afraid already of the process of the criminal justice system. It makes it, when you see an incident you fail to want to call the police and be a witness because you’re afraid of who you may come in contact with.”

For many people it raises another question: Why do the current officers involved in that scandal still have jobs?

Many don’t, in other cities. Several officers in Philadelphia, Pa., who turned up in the same report have already been fired by the department there.

“Some people were fired,” Edwards said when asked about it. He didn’t really answer the question when asked if any St. Louis officers had been dismissed. “We are in a process. Our process is much different than the Philadelphia Police Department. We have a civil service process in the city of St. Louis. It requires steps.”

We asked Edwards if anyone in command or city government was able to simply tell officers to stop posting material that can be detrimental to their relationship with sectors of the community, particularly minorities.

“Well, the city of St. Louis, prior to 2018, never had a social media policy,” he responded. “I implemented a social media policy that would address situations like the vigilante cartoon character The Punisher.”

The Punisher is a vigilante comic book character that has been adapted by some officers around the country with a “thin blue line” look to symbolize their work. In the Plain View Project’s report, the character turned up in conjunction with many racist and combative posts. Roorda sees this as being blown out of proportion.

“It’s preposterous, and all we’re trying to do is make people see how preposterous it is,” he said.

The Police Officers’ Association has encouraged members to use that Punisher logo as a profile picture on their social media pages. But at the same time, the union newspaper published a lengthy article warning officers that they are held to a higher standard on social media and suggesting that they not use the logo at all.

Roorda, meanwhile, points back at the circuit attorney’s office as the source of the recent bad press for police here.

“We’ve got a rogue prosecutor who’s not interested in putting criminals in jail but wants to make up things about police officers so she can put them in jail or put them on her stupid list,” he said. “So, it’s a tough time to be a police officer here.”

And regarding other cases in which officers face criminal charges for things such as unnecessarily pepper spraying protesters, Roorda lashed out at the department’s own watchdogs.

“The internal affairs division is completely out of control,” he said. “They are not interested in justice or the best interests of the department. They’re just interested in headhunting. And that’s what we have now, a bunch of headhunters up there.”

Just days after this interview, on the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Roorda set off a social media controversy of his own when he tweeted a picture of former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, with a caption reading, “HAPPY ALIVE DAY, DARREN.”  The tweet set off an explosion of criticism that made its way to the national media.

As far as the troubles for the SLMPD go, by far the most serious case was the death of Officer Katlyn Alix, 24. Another officer, Nathaniel Hendren, and his partner were supposed to be working but left the area they were patrolling and went to Hendren’s apartment. Alix, who was off duty, was there as well. They ended up playing a game of Russian roulette, according to police, and Alix was shot and killed.

Hendren is facing charges, but his partner, who also left his duty station, still has a job. He is suspended without pay, but why is he still on the force at all?

“It’s a process,” Edwards reiterated. “It’s a process that I respect. I believe in the rule of law, and I respect the process.”

But considering that this particular “process” has been going on since January, we asked Edwards if it frustrated him at all.

“No. It does not frustrate me,” he answered.

In the end, this all goes back to relationships between police and the public. Edwards insists things are improving on that front, and he’s not alone in that sentiment.

Former St. Louis police Chief Dan Isom, who served on the Ferguson Commission, sees progress since those dark days in 2014 when looking at police and how they relate to the public.

“It appears as if things have gotten better,” he told us in an interview in his Central West End office, where he is now a consultant. “There are a number of things that have happened during that period of time where there could have been unrest, but it looks as if all police departments are very engaged in trying to make those relationships stronger.”

And Edwards believes police are facing roadblocks in those attempts.

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to change the narrative when people want the narrative to be negative,” he said.

But some within the department believe that narrative has been earned.

“We can guarantee before the year is out we will probably have other officers make front-page news,” Taylor predicted, “and they will probably have been repeat offenders that our department has overlooked.”

St. Louis’ current police chief, John Hayden, declined through a department spokesman to be interviewed for this report.

George Sells

george.sells@metrostlcom.wpcomstaging.com George Sells is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in news. He has spent the last decade on the St. Louis media scene, working for KTVI Fox 2, HEC Media, and more recently as a host for KMOX Radio. His wife of twenty years, Julie, was born and raised in St. Louis. They have two kids and a dog.

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