Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom uses the same calm tone talking about racist officers in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as he might use talking about the number of squad cars available for service or the latest crime statistics: It’s merely a recitation of facts.
“Do I believe there are racist individuals within the St. Louis Police Department both past and present? Absolutely,” Isom told me. “But under Mayor Jones’ administration, we are finally moving toward true community oversight. And that is what will turn the tide and change the culture within the police department, when we have true community accountability.”
Isom’s talking about the Civilian Oversight Board, known as the COB, a seven-member board set up in 2016 to investigate all officer-involved fatal shooting in St. Louis. But in the first four years of its existence, the COB has investigated none of the 21 fatal shootings by St. Louis officers that took place between 2016 and 2019. The reason, the COB said in a report last month, is a sluggish, myopic bureaucracy.
The COB isn’t allowed to see any evidence from any police shootings until both an internal police department review, and a review by prosecutors, are completed. The internal police department investigation can’t be completed until city police commissioners convene the department’s Deadly Force Review Board.
But the Deadly Force Review Board hasn’t held a meeting in two and a half years. In addition, the police and the COB use different forms, and the forms filled out by police after a shooting have never been provided to the COB. Mayor Tishaura Jones’ first executive order requires that the police use the same forms as the COB, and turn them over to the COB immediately.
Mayor Jones, like many other reformers, believes the Civilian Oversight Board should be in charge of all investigations of police shootings from the moment the shots are fired. Dan Isom – back in City Hall as Interim Public Safety Director after being police chief from 2008 until 2013 and the Desmond Lee Professor of Policing and the Community at the University of Missouri-St. Louis afterwards – agrees.
“We have to give the Civilian Oversight Board the power, the influence, and the oversight to be able to effectively weed out individuals who don’t have the values we espouse as community members and law enforcement professionals,” Isom said. “Mayor Jones is moving toward creating that culture of accountability within the police department that we all want and deserve and need.”
My conversation with Isom took place within days of two other events linked to high crime and police ineffectiveness in fighting it. A city report was released concluding that in 2020, arrests were made in only a little more than 13 percent of all crimes in the city. In 2020 in the city of St. Louis, criminals had an 87 percent chance of getting away with whatever they did.
The other event was the federal re-trial of former St. Louis officer Dustin Boone, for beating a Black undercover cop who had infiltrated a group of anti-police protesters in 2017. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but Boone was found guilty in the second trial of beating and severely injuring police Detective Luther Hall, who still hasn’t been able to return to work.
What clinched Boone’s conviction were a series of racist text messages Boone had sent to friends and family before he beat Hall. The texts, which weren’t discovered until after his first trial, included phrases including “There are ni**ers running wild all over the city” and “These f**king ni**ers are the same as St. Louis ni**ers.” A juror in the second trial told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the texts were the key to convicting Boone, since they showed he was a racist well before he beat Detective Hall.
Boone’s texts didn’t appear in a vacuum.
Decades of racist posts on the infamous CopTalk police message board, a tsunami of racist Facebook posts by St. Louis officers revealed by The Plain View Project in 2019, the performative racism of city police union spokesman Jeff Roorda, an average of almost $1 million a year in wrongful death and civil rights settlements by city police, and more, have resulted in a chasm as wide as the flooded Mississippi between police and African-American residents of a city that’s half Black.
Racist police are ineffective police, because they’re unable to get community tips and co-operation to solve crimes, let alone prevent them. Solving fewer than one-third of murders in the city’s highest crime neighborhoods is just one symptom of how a racist reputation has turned the SLMPD into an ineffective law enforcement agency.
“Being ineffective in those areas and changing those numbers around is really about engaging in these communities, learning, and finding out what his happening in those communities,” Isom said. “Certainly, there is work to be done to engage in the communities and being more effective than the police department has been in the past.”
More information and intelligence from those communities, Isom knows, is the key to both solving crime and preventing crime. Doing that will mean weeding out racist cops, and, more importantly, preventing them from becoming officers in the first place.
Isom says he’s working on a plan to begin doing just that in the Police Academy.
“We’re looking forward to doing things a different way,” Isom said. “There are multiple ways for police officers to solve problems, and only one of them involves arrests. We want to change the culture of policing, and support officers in those efforts. We want to chart a new direction for the city.”