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Officer Down: how St. Louis area police try to stay safe and reach out

"Sam Safety," (left) along with St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom visit students at Cote Brilliant School. "Sam" is the Department's mascot for the "Officer Friendly" community outreach program.
(Julie Bierach/St. Louis Public Radio)
"Sam Safety," (left) along with St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom visit students at Cote Brilliant School. "Sam" is the Department's mascot for the "Officer Friendly" community outreach program.

Federal and local officials are worried about the number of law enforcement officers killed so far this year. Yesterday, St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach looked at the scope of the problem.

Today, she explores what St. Louis area police do to stay safe on the streets and how they’re trying to build better relationships with the people they serve.

“Guess who the scared ones is? The policemen.”

It’s been a bloody year so far for police in the U.S., at least 40 have been killed. In St. Louis, Darryl Hall was killed in April and U.S. Marshal John Perry was gunned down in March. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce is warning about an increase in assaults against police officers, and what she says is a rise in bad attitudes towards the police - attitudes like the one Perry Owens has about the police in Jennings.

“Stupid, Jennings is stupid. I mean, I don’t know what else to say,” Owens said. “Even the county police out here, they lining people up and putting people in jail. For what?”

I met Owens walking down West Florissant Ave. in Jennings in St. Louis County. He’s 61-years-old and said he’s a minister. He wears a white t-shirt, and lots of what he calls “bling,” a chunky gold watch and a gold chain both engraved with an image of Jesus. He has complaints about the police. He says they harass people, constantly pull people over, ask for ID and take people to jail for no reason. That’s why, Owens says, no one here is afraid of the cops.

“There’s not a police around here that people’s afraid of,” Owens said. “They’d rather shoot them then shoot you. Guess who the scared ones is? The policemen. They’re the scared ones. They’d rather pop me and you just standing here then go out and get the criminals because they don’t know what they’re up against. AK-47s or automatics or whatever, you know what I’m saying?”

Procedure & Officer Safety

St. Louis County Police Sergeant Colby Dolly works at the Jennings Police Department. It’s the day of Officer Darryl Hall’s funeral. Dolly’s badge displays a black band in honor of Hall’s death. Sergeant Dolly is a watch supervisor and let me ride along with him for the afternoon.

He says a complaint like Perry’s that police harass people, is a classic case of differing perspectives. In most cases, a call was made by someone in the area and police have to check it out.

“Their perspective on this is, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong here, the police are harassing me.’ But, I think a lot of times it’s just a difference of perspective,” Dolly said. “It’s our job to investigate this stuff. And I would just try to explain someone called, someone called, that’s why I’m here, I’m investigating this.”

Because of the high number of officer deaths this year, the Justice department is encouraging police to pay special attention to officer safety.

“We’ll stop here, see what this officer’s doing,” Colby said as we exited his patrol car.

On the first call, we pull up behind two other police cars. A woman is sitting on the ground. One officer stands next to her, while another searches her car. She’s crying. A glance at one of the police cars reveals a man, handcuffed and sitting in the back seat.

Dolly: “This officer stopped the car and I believe the person in the car, he’s wanted for a (what did you say?)

Officer: “A parole violation for assaulting a policeman. He assaulted some Jennings policeman. She’s got some drug paraphernalia.”

Back in the car, Dolly says in situations like this there are safety procedures that police follow. The person is separated from the car and one officer keeps watch over them. The other officer does the search. Dolly says sometimes it’s easier if they know someone is armed or wanted. They can anticipate what to expect. When they don’t know, it can be harder. Like when an officer just wants to get some information from a person.

“It would be inappropriate for me to draw my gun and point it at him and get out and talk to him,” Dolly said, “But, when I approach him, I’m going to watch what his hands are doing, I’m going to protect myself as much as I can. I’m probably not going to invade his personal space that much because that’s going to put me at risk to be assaulted.”

Outreach & “Officer Friendly”

Some police departments are making an effort to build better relationships with the community. The St. Louis Police Department is focusing on kids in the city public school district.

At Cote Brilliant School, Officer Drew Ali is standing in front of a group of preschoolers, kindergarteners and first graders. He’s one of the community outreach officers in each of the nine police districts that serve as “Officer Friendly.” Through the program, officers talk to youngsters about safety practices and start to build better relationships with students when they’re young. 

On this day, St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom is debuting the program’s new mascot, a lovable bunny they call “Sam Safety.” The kids love the gray bunny and row by row are called up to give him a hug and get their picture taken with him.

Officer Ali says the addition of “Sam Safety” will only enhance his outreach efforts.

“It makes it cool to be safe,” Ali said. “Me, as a police officer coming into the classroom is great, for the relationship of the city, the citizens and the kids seeing us in a different light. But with the Sam Safety mascot coming, now that we have it, I think it will be that extra push that we need to build that relationship.”

Chief Isom says this type of school program can have a lasting impact. Because, for some of these kids, the only interaction they’ve had with the police is during a time of crisis.

“I mean, we might have to arrest their mother, their father, or take them out of their house,” Isom said. “At least they have some, they have some attachment to us beyond just that.”

A Societal Incubator for Criminals?

James Clark with the non-profit A Better Family Life thinks the Officer Friendly program could really help city youth, and not just with improving their relationship with the police. Clark says, in general, society is failing urban youth. And the police are not the problem; he thinks they have nothing to do with it, because the police answer the phone after it rings. He wants to stop the phone from ringing.

“Our high crime neighborhoods are incubators of criminals right now,” Clark said. “It produces criminals and second class citizens. We have totally written off the youth in our urban core, not just in St. Louis, but all over America. It’s just not a St. Louis reality that African American males are killing African American males. It’s a nationwide phenomenon.”

Clark says he works with many young adults like Carlos Boles, who opened fire on police in March killing U.S. Marshal John Perry. And he says Boles’ story is just a thumbnail of the urban culture right now.

“Carlos Boles didn’t come into this world packing a gun and violent,” Clark said. “We did not have things in place for him. Now, the flip side of it is, Carlos Boles had a responsibility to do things necessary to help himself. Right now, society, I believe we are failing our inner city youth. We are doing a poor job providing them with alternatives.”

And when we do that, Clark says, St. Louis will begin to get a handle on the crime plaguing the city, and perhaps change some of the negative attitudes about police.