St. Louis may end up being in decent shape if Mayor Tishaura Jones inherited her old man’s b.s. detector. So far, the genetics seem to be working in her favor.
In 1995, the town was touching itself with ecstasy over having stolen the Rams from Los Angeles. Led by white old-line powerbrokers, civic worthies, corporate fat cats and City Hall politicos, St. Louis gave the Rams free rent, ad revenues and other sweeteners, including a contract that gave the Rams the right to leave town after a couple of decades if the newly built Dome wasn’t among the “top tier” facilities in the NFL.
Enter Comptroller Virvus Jones. Local leaders thought Jones was the tarantula on the civic angel food cake when, as the city’s top financial officer, he said again and again that the math didn’t work and the contract was stacked in the Rams’ favor. Jones was ignored, and later faded from sight after he was indicted and sent to federal prison for 366 days over alleged tax fraud involving his 1993 campaign.
Out of sight, out of mind. Jones served his time, the power brokers responsible for the Rams deal died off one by one, and — just as Jones predicted in 1995 — the Rams and owner Stan Kroenke treated St. Louis like a used Kleenex, tossing it out the moving van window in 2016 on the way back to Los Angeles. The math never did work, and Jones was 100 percent correct about the holes in the contract that let them move.
Tishaura Jones had just moved back to St. Louis with a freshly minted degree from Virginia’s Hampton University when her father played Cassandra to an audience of white suburban moneybags who didn’t want to hear about little things such as contracts and basic arithmetic. Now, she’s St. Louis’s first Black woman mayor, while the old man beamed with pride behind his COVID mask at last Tuesday’s City Hall inauguration.
Jones, a state representative before she became St. Louis’ Treasurer, moved fast on her pledge to reform policing and fight violent crime in America’s most murderous city. Days before she was sworn in, she named two people with serious chops in both the police and Black communities to oversee an overhaul of the way things work.
Dan Isom, who became the city’s third Black police chief in 2008 and on whose watch the murder rate in the city fell, was lured away from his professorship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to become interim Public Safety Director. Heather Taylor, who recently resigned after 20 years as a city detective, went from the Ethical Society of Police — the Black officers association Taylor headed and used to criticize the SLMPD’s long-documented history of racism — became Isom’s top assistant.
Then, on her second full day in office, Mayor Jones unveiled a budget that puts the budget for the city’s troubled medium-security jail, the Workhouse, at zero. The blighted Black Hole of Hall Street, after over a decade of complaints about dangerous, unsanitary and violent conditions, looks as if it might finally be shut down.
A lot of this is made possible by the sudden weakening of the single biggest obstacle to police reform and effective crime fighting, the city’s recognized bargaining unit and police union, the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
The SLPOA and its business manager, Fox News favorite Jeff Roorda, have a history of putting dog-whistle racism and white cultural cop grievance ahead of effective law enforcement.
Racist screeds of officers in the infamous CopTalk online forum; Roorda’s full-throated defense of Ferguson cop Darren Wilson over his killing of Mike Brown; my 2019 exposure of dozens of city officers’ making racist Facebook posts under assumed names; $11 million in wrongful death, civil rights and brutality payouts over the past decade; the highest number of civilian shootings of any American police department; and paying out $5 million to a Black undercover detective viciously beaten by white officers are just a few examples of instances in which the SLPOA was more interested in protecting bad cops than in protecting citizens.
Mayor Jones has said she won’t sit at the negotiating table with a racist such as Roorda for any reason. And now, she may not have to.
The old SLPOA contract expired last June 30. Talks have continued on two tracks: pay and benefits, and police department policies. The pay and benefits portion of the talks have gone just fine. But the union, and Roorda, have reportedly sandbagged most efforts to reform police policies. So the city has declared talks over.
But beyond that, the city has said past contracts with the SLPOA were essentially illegal because the chief, not the union, should control “operational matters.” Or in plain English, the union can negotiate on wages, benefits and working conditions but shouldn’t have ever been able to dictate patrol, arrest or actual policing policies.
All this means Mayor Jones has a better chance than any of her predecessors to reform a police department that makes arrests in only one-third of the murders in high-crime neighborhoods. At the same time, she needs to recognize that those areas are where honest, dedicated cops are most needed, because armed dope-slingers and underclass sociopaths are holding entire neighborhoods hostage, killing bystanders and children on the streets and in their cars with the casual indifference of a billionaire leaving town with his NFL team.
In life, timing is everything. Tishaura Jones has become mayor just as a national campaign for police reform, the Chauvin verdict, a weakened anti-reform local cop union, and respected Black law enforcement officials in power positions have all come together.
We’ll see if that can overcome a long St. Louis tradition of bad policing and high crime.