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One Year In, St. Louis County Police Chief Barton Defends Her Record On Race

St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton speaks to St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann on April 30, 2021.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Despite calls for her to resign, St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton says she is still the best person to lead the department.

St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton says she remains the best person to lead her 950-person department, despite increasing pressure to step down.

“I’m fair, I’m equitable, and I listen to everyone’s side,” Barton said Friday in an interview on her first year in office. “I refuse to become involved in politics. I have to tune out all that noise, and just move forward, and move this police department forward in the direction that it needs to go. And this department is moving forward to being very equitable.”

A report released late last year by the consulting firm Teneo Risk identified a “serious racial divide” within the department, exacerbated by personnel policies that were seen as subjective. The firm said there was “a narrowing window of opportunity” to address the issues.

Barton has frequently stumbled around racial issues. Last June, she had to walk back a comment she made in a meeting with the St. Louis County Council in which she dismissed the existence of systemic racism in the department. At least four Black officers are suing the department alleging discrimination in hiring and promotions. One, Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, was widely considered the leading candidate for chief. And both the Ethical Society of Police and the county council have issued no-confidence votes in Barton, while the County Police Officers Association considers whether to do the same.

“You can't fix years of problems in one night or one year,” said Barton, who was sworn in April 30, 2020. “This is an ongoing, ever changing, ever moving forward process.”

She pointed to her regular meetings with the Ethical Society, which advocates for officers of color, and her speed at dealing with individual incidents such as academy instructors using racial slurs as evidence of her effort to bridge the divide. She has also boosted training around racial equity in the department and launched a unit focusing on the issue. However, the Teneo report found the department was not using the unit well.

The department has also enrolled in ABLE, a program out of Georgetown University that teaches officers to intervene in the field when they see their colleagues acting improperly. A spokesman for the department said he was not aware of any instances in which an officer used the training to call out another officer.

“I’ll define success as less instances that are brought to our attention that we believe may be racially motivated or acts of intolerance, or sometimes just plain not educated,” Barton said.

Policing in the pandemic

In some ways, Barton said, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a major obstacle as she took over the department.

“But in other ways, it made us be creative and think of new ways to engage with people when you couldn't actually either go talk to them or go out and engage in events with them,” she said. “But I'm happy to say that even though we engaged in creative ways, our delivery of services to the citizens of St. Louis County did not diminish.”

About 200 employees of the department, both officers and civilians, tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, Barton said. All but one have been able to return to work.

Rachel Lippmann talks with Chief Barton

Cooperation with the city

With County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones both exploring ways to increase cooperation in policing, Barton said the focus of any effort should be on sharing intelligence between the departments.

“Crime really doesn't know any boundaries between the city or the county or the county or municipalities,” she said. “So anything that you can do to address ongoing crime, especially violent crime and homicides is well worth the investment.”

The Teneo report for the county, and a separate one that evaluated the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, both faulted a lack of coordination and sharing of information between and within the departments.

A combined policing effortin the city’s Walnut Park West neighborhood and the city of Jennings in the county was able to bring down crime in those areas. But officials acknowledged it got off to a rough start because the extent of the cooperation was not initially made public. Teneo was an adviser on that effort, and the county has retained the firm to provide further consulting services.

You can hear more from Barton’s interview Monday on "St. Louis on the Air."

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.