Addressing the “Cancer” Rampant in the St. Louis Police Department
by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Sept. 25, 2017
Mayor Lyda Krewson deserves points for her Sept. 19th public statement on the root cause of protests in the St. Louis region:
“This is institutional racism.”
Krewson is 100 percent correct. Institutionalized, systemic racism is the rancid cancer that has metastasized in the region’s organs for centuries. It’s a rotting parasite flowing through the arteries of employment, housing and economic development, the courts, radio airwaves dominated by conservative talk and the comment sections of the city’s top media outlets, most notably, its daily newspaper.
Krewson, also to her credit, has been front-and-center since protests ensued after Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson handed down a “not guilty” verdict for former police officer Jason Stockley for the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
However, in her break-down of systemic racism, Krewson lost points for not directly mentioning the institutional body that is most infected yet emboldened by the disease: The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
The SLMPD shares this malady with police departments throughout the country. However, the city’s police department has a long, ugly history of brazenly flaunting its illness to intimidate politicians, protestors and anyone they feel defies them or question their tactics.
In 2014, after the police shooting death of Mike Brown, the head of the St. Louis Police Officers Assn. (SLPOA), Jeff Roorda, fanned the flames of hatred on Fox News by declaring what he thinks St. Louis protesters really want:
“Dead cops, dead cops. That’s what they want.” Roorda said.
Established in 1808, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has a long history of racial division. Today, in 2017, it has two police associations that represent the collective bargaining rights of officers. There is some overlap, but most white officers belong to the SLPOA, while most black officers are members of the Ethical Society of Police, which issued a public plea to find former officer Stockley guilty of murder.
The SLPOA is the same organization that, in 2014, tried to flex its collective muscles after five St. Louis Rams football players made a “hands up” gesture in solidarity with Ferguson protesters. The police group’s statement called for the players to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a strong public apology.
Roorda threatened to reach out to other police organizations around the country to enlist their support: “I’d remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser’s products. It’s cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do,” he said.
Protestors, police and their supporters all have free speech rights. The police union is a very, very powerful agency with extensive social media tentacles, like its newsletter, the Gendarme, metropolitan police department websites and other pro-police groups like Blue Lives Matters. This would be all well-and-good if they didn’t cross over into the arenas of propaganda and intimidation.
Not only do the organizations use volatile rhetoric towards communities of color, often labeling young black men as “thugs” or peaceful protesters as “home-grown terrorist” and uses its influence to encourage an “us vs. them” narrative between police and protesters. Most disturbingly, however, is how these organizations threaten the livelihoods of individuals, businesses and anyone they’ve targeted as a threat.
Consider the recent case of Chris Sommers, co-founder of Pi Pizzeria. According to Sommers, on Friday, Sept. 15th, St. Louis police, in full military regalia, gassed his restaurant after protesters left the area. Sommers admitted he had some course words for police:
“I lost my shit and screamed at them for terrorizing our guests and hiding behind their shields and guns when there were zero agitators on our corner.”
When police lobbed a tear gas canister in his direction, someone next to Sommers threw it back, he says. Police rushed the restaurant, Sommers added, saying that he barely made it inside and locked the door before police reached him. After he posted the incident on social media and called out “the insane, illegal behavior by the police,” Sommers claims he’s become “public enemy №1” to the police and their supporters.
“Blue Lives Matters put Sommers on blast for his response — and the union representing St. Louis County police officers shared the link and echoed the call on its Facebook page, the River Front Times (RFT) reported. Pro-police groups shared the phone numbers of Pi’s Central West End, downtown and Delmar Loop locations and urged its supporters to express their “freedom of speech” rights and call the restaurant.
“Let’s get the word out that if you bash the police, you won’t be getting our business,” Blue Lives Matter wrote, according to the RFT.
Apparently, the word spread and their actions have affected Pi’s business. “The Blue Lives Matter (only) assholes are physically threatening me and my businesses, with hundreds of one-star reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook,” Sommers stated in his response to the police’s accusations.
Andrew Gibson, a member of “Faith for Justice,” a coalition of Christian activists who’ve been involved in recent protests, recounted a harrowing tale of aggression and intimidation after police posted (on the SLMPD website) the names and addresses of protestors arrested on Sept. 15th, including members of Gibson’s group:
“The police did more to put us in danger by posting the addresses of everyone immorally arrested…, knowing there are white supremacists and blue lives matter groups who would love that information, knowing that there are children at those addresses,” Gibson wrote on his Facebook page.
City cops have become so brazen in their attempts to bully people, they fear no repercussion. On Sept. 16th, a St. Louis police officer posted a photo of Back Lives Matter protesters on a stranger’s Facebook page. The captions read: “The Klan with a tan” and “domestic terrorists.” Because the cop didn’t conceal his name, social media users connected him to his job through a Google search. The St. Louis Police Department was alerted and, according to a spokesperson, launched an investigation.
St. Louis area police seem to gleefully opt for militarized confrontation with black protesters. Unlike what the nation witnessed in Charlottesville, Va. Armed, torch-bearing, antagonistic, white supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s yelling racial slurs and anti-Semitic remarks were not greeted by the national guard, tanks, teargas or rubber bullets, which seems to be the first option local police choose for black protesters.
Angela Helm, a correspondent for the Root underscored the blatant disparity:
“The racists are still marching with guns and hair-trigger tempers, but the police have taken a unique “hands off” approach to the melee and letting these white men enjoy the very privilege that they whine is being taken from them.”
Two days after the PI Pizzeria incident, protesters, bystanders and at least one journalist, were reportedly roughed up and rounded up by police. During the melee, officers were overheard chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” stealing the familiar mantra of local protesters. The next day, interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole, reinforced the message by saying, “the police owned tonight. We’re in control.”
It was the Kansas City Star, not our local daily newspaper, that noted the danger of treating mass arrests like a “World Series win”:
“When St. Louis police in riot gear chant the same thing (as protesters), it’s meant to menace, to exclude… and not implausibly, to exult in the acquittal of Jason Stockley… The perception that it’s cops and not those they serve who ‘own the streets’ and the whole criminal justice system is why demonstrators are out marching in the first place,” the Star’s editorial board wrote.
Police brutality and intimidation may wind up costing the city dearly. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced its filed a lawsuit claiming city cops violated the constitutional rights of protesters by: “Attacking people indiscriminately with gratuitous use of pepper spray, pepper balls, rubber bullets, and tear gas when no apparent illegal activity had occurred; excessively use of force, including violent arrests that caused injuries; deploying chemicals, such as tear gas and pepper spray, without warning; deploying tear gas on routes where people were leaving.”
“Intimidation is not conduct that lives up to the standard of behavior expected by city police officers,” Mayor Krewson said during a Sept. 19th press conference. It’s important to note, however, that the mayor praised the police before pledging that any incidences of misconduct would be investigated by the department’s internal affairs division.
And therein lies the problem. For too long, city leaders have coddled racism. Placing the onus of change on the police is akin to asking cancer to cure itself. Like the literal disease, racism must be aggressively attacked with the most sophisticated tools and most qualified people. It must be killed before it consumes the entire body. Unfortunately, it seems, the arm of the SLMPD is completely disease-ridden.
A Sept. 19th New York Times article explored the “political tightrope” Mayor Krewson treads as a defender of protester’s rights “while also condemning lawlessness and standing in support of the police.”
During the mayoral race earlier this year, Krewson was heavily criticized for the endorsement she received from the St. Louis Police Officers Association and her relationship with the controversial Jeff Roorda.
“Roorda’s comments on social media are incendiary and abhorrent,” Krewson said during one community forum. “I do not stand with Jeff Roorda and those comments. But I do stand with the 1,200 city police officers today. I can’t help who they hire.”
It’s that “stand” with police that’s sparked Krewson’s renewed criticism. In the NY Times article, city treasurer, Tishaura Jones, one of the mayoral candidates, said Krewson seems “like she’s taking the side of the police.”
Mayoral candidates, including Krewson, offered a litany of proposals regarding police reform and public safety during the many debates and forums. Their ideas included de-escalation training for officers, violence intervention programs for would-be offenders, better community engagement, racial-equity training for police and increasing police presence in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
In the end, Krewson won the election. Bottom line: the buck stops with her. She can’t be both an advocate and adversary of cancer. “Tightrope” or not, as the city’s elected leader, she must lead the charge in addressing police intimidation and aggression.
A Sept. 21st St. Louis American editorial labeled our city “the new Selma.” It harkens back to a time when Alabama police used brutal and inhumane tactics such as batons, water hoses and mass arrests to break the back of the civil rights movement. This is a designation that St. Louis doesn’t need. It is, however, a moniker the city will forever wear if the cancer of racism, aggression and intimidation isn’t completely and quickly eradicated from the body of police and our criminal justice system.
Sylvester Brown Jr. is a writer, community activist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a program that seeks to empower low-income youth and adults through land-ownership and urban agriculture.