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Post-Ferguson Police Reform Stalls, But The St. Louis Mayor Is Planning Fixes

Demonstrators kneel in front of police officers at a protest in Ferguson on May 31, 2020.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Demonstrators kneel in front of police officers at a protest in Ferguson on May 31, 2020. Most efforts to reform policing in the St. Louis region have not brought meaningful change.

In many ways, Ferguson became the Selma of the 21st century after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown seven years ago. Protests transformed Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into the nation’s leading civil rights movement and forged a potent political coalition that elected Black reformers in St. Louis to top offices, including prosecutor, congresswoman and mayor.

Yet Ferguson reforms have faltered, and Missouri is moving in another direction. This summer, Missouri became the only state since George Floyd’s murder to enact a “law enforcement bill of rights.” The passage of the law, drafted by a lawyer for state police unions, received scant public notice. But it ties police accountability in knots, closes police misconduct records and allows courts to block the kinds of police budget cuts proposed by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones.

Even as the nation was consumed by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, St. Louis paid little attention to similar deaths that occurred here involving “prone restraint” and mistaken “no-knock” warrants.

Nicholas Gilbert died of asphyxiation in the St. Louis police holdover in 2015 under “prone restraint,” with six officers on top of him while he was handcuffed and his legs were shackled. And Don Ray Clark, a 63-year-old Army veteran, was killed in 2017 during a SWAT team’s “no-knock” raid on his Dutchtown home based on a warrant application painting him as a criminal even though he never had been charged with a crime.

The City of St. Louis has continued to defend these police actions in court, even though the cases are similar to the Floyd and Taylor killings criticized publicly by city officials.

But that may be changing. When Jared Boyd, the mayor’s chief of staff, was asked to explain the disconnect between the city’s legal position and the mayor’s public statements, he told St. Louis Public Radio that Jones is appointing a new city counselor who will reconsider the city’s legal position in police cases.

The change is part of larger changes in the works, in which the mayor is proposing an Office of Public Accountability that would employ civil service investigators with subpoena power to investigate serious allegations of police wrongdoing. The civilian investigators would “wall off” police from involvement in these probes, Boyd said.

The proposal is intended, he said, to address weaknesses in post-Ferguson reforms.

The situation

Here is evidence the Ferguson reforms have fallen short:

  • St. Louis police kill more civilians per capita than any other big city department. Yet no St. Louis-area police officer has ever been convicted of murdering a civilian. 
  • St. Louis-area officers killed 132 people between 2009 and 2019, according to an ArchCity Defenders report. Yet few of the names of the officers involved in the killings were reported in the media or released publicly.
  • The St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board, set up as a post-Ferguson reform, didn’t review any of the 21 police killings in the city of St. Louis from 2016 through 2019, nor has it heard 96% of non-lethal police abuse cases filed by citizens.
  • The post-Ferguson creation of the Force Investigation Unit in the St. Louis Police Department has resulted in less, not more, public information about police killings. Officers’ names aren’t released, and details of what happened aren’t shared. And there have been no prosecutions.
  • St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, elected with the support of activists inspired by Ferguson protests, has not issued prosecutorial judgments in the score of police killings on her desk, civil rights lawyers say.  
  • Racism has infected police misconduct. White officers badly beat a Black colleague at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2017 in downtown St. Louis because they thought he was a protester. The officers sent racist texts to each other before and after the assault expressing their enthusiasm for beating Black people and their racial hatred for Gardner, who is Black. Only one officer was convicted by a jury partly because the federal criminal civil rights law has an especially high standard of proof — a prime roadblock to police accountability.
  • At the same 2017 protest, white officers went “rogue”, the city admits, and illegally “kettled” 125 Black Lives Matter protesters and downtown residents by closing them into a city block, spraying them with pepper spray and arresting them in what a judge found to be a violation of their rights.
  • Gardner has identified about 60 city officers who are not honest enough to call to testify in trials, but the police union defends them.
  • The police unions still are effectively segregated, with the predominantly white Police Officers Association warring against the city’s first Black prosecutor, while the Black Ethical Society of Police defends her. The Police Officers Association has opposed reforms like the Civilian Oversight Board, opposed Gardner’s police initiatives and fought back successfully with passage of the police bill of rights.
  • Officers forced out by the St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments for wrongdoing “wander” to suburban departments, such as St. Ann, where they often reoffend.

Ferguson reforms fail

Ironically, major post-Ferguson reforms intended to bring more accountability in the city of St. Louis — the Force Investigation Unit, Civilian Oversight Board and Gardner’s review of police killings — have brought less accountability.

The multilayered review process set up in St. Louis delays shooting investigations for years as they wend their way from the Force Investigation Unit to a review in Gardner’s office, then back to the police department Internal Affairs Bureau, to the Deadly Force Tactical Review Board and finally to the Oversight Review Board.

The Force Investigation Unit has released far less information about police killings than police released before it was created. The Civil Oversight Board has investigated none of the 21 police killings from 2016-19. And Gardner’s office hasn’t made prosecutorial determinations.

When then-St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson unveiled the Force Investigation Unit in 2014, he said a mandatory review of all cases by prosecutors would ensure impartiality. He also promised that the name of every officer involved in a shooting would be publicly revealed, once it was considered safe to do so.

But a review of media coverage and department incident reports found that officers’ names were less likely to be made public following this post-Ferguson reform.

Emanuel Powell, a lawyer at ArchCity Defenders, confirmed in an interview that the unit created “a more secretive system,” making it more difficult for the public to access information related to police killings.

Before the unit was created, incident reports would include an approximately eight-paragraph police narrative detailing what happened before, during and after a police killing. Since then, incident reports have been only one or two sentences long, and most no longer include officers’ names.

Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 30 St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department incident reports omitted the names of officers who killed civilians on the job, a review of those reports disclosed.

Looking at the entire St. Louis area, public information about police killings has dropped sharply.

Three-fourths of the 79 St. Louis-area police officers known to have killed people between 2009 and 2017 were never publicly identified in the media or by police. Almost half remain active police officers, according to state records.

Boyd, Mayor Jones’ chief of staff, said the proposed Office of Public Accountability is directly aimed at addressing the weaknesses of the Force Investigation Unit and Oversight Review Board. The mayor’s office has been working with senior members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee to come up with new legislation, he said.

The Force Investigation Unit, in its comment on the situation, wrote in an email that it withholds the name of police shooters before a charging decision just as it does the names of civilian shooters. Gardner has publicly commented that the unit’s investigations are incomplete and she hasn’t received the resources to complete thorough investigations.

ArchCity’s Powell, who has been working with the families of those killed, says relatives of the dead civilians “say the whole system is bad.” Ferguson reforms have done more harm than good, he said.

Orli Sheffey is a sophomore studying political science at Washington University in St. Louis. She is currently a senior news editor at Student Life, the independent newspaper at the university.

For further details, go to the Pulitzer Center’s website: Roadblocks to Police Accountability

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.