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Barton Acknowledges Racial Divide In St. Louis County Police Department

Col. Mary Barton, pictured May 1, 2020.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton, shown here on May 1, is promising a culture shift in the department around wrongdoing.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. June 11 with additional statement from Barton

St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton is further clarifying remarks she made about racism in the police department.

“To be clear, I do acknowledge and believe that racism, sexism, and many other similar forms of discrimination are present in our society and that people suffer trauma as a direct result of experiencing them,” Barton said in a written statement released Thursday. “It is all too easy to witness examples in our educational, medical, and criminal justice systems. If/when racism is present in word or deed by any member(s) of this Department, those involved will see swift and certain discipline. No one will hold this Department to a higher standard of moral and ethical behavior than I do.”

Barton has been under pressure since Tuesday, when she told the St. Louis County Council that she did not see systemic racism in the department.

Updated at 1 p.m. June 10 with Barton’s comments to police board

The new chief of the St. Louis County Police Department is acknowledging a racial divide in the department.

“I absolutely do believe that,” Mary Barton told the Board of Police Commissioners on Wednesday. Her comments came amid pushback to earlier remarks that she did not see systemic racism in the department.

Barton told commissioners that she has boosted the number of officers in the bureau that investigates officer conduct so both internal and external complaints could be heard faster. And she is eager to meet with community groups in person when police headquarters reopens to the public.

“So to say that we haven’t really done anything I don’t think is a fair assessment,” she said. “I believe we have done as much as we possibly can in a short amount of time, and then the protest coming up. So it has been a time constraint, but it is an absolute priority here.”

Barton on Wednesday also promised to take public input in a review of the department’s use of force policies.

Our original story:

The new chief of the St. Louis County Police Department says she is committed to changing the way her officers handle wrongdoing in the department.

“We have to have a shift in culture here to some degree where we embrace the fact that we will no longer tolerate or no longer put up with inappropriate remarks, inappropriate behavior, things we deem unethical, things we deem insensitive,” Chief Mary Barton said Tuesday at a meeting with the St. Louis County Council. “And it really has to be a shift where the onus is on everyone."

Officers are already required to report when fellow officers don’t follow department policy on things like use of force, Barton said. She plans to implement more training on ethical policing that should increase the likelihood officers will call each other out on inappropriate jokes or comments as well.

But some council members felt Barton was missing a key factor in the behavior of officers.

“Chief, I want to go back to something you said earlier, about what we really need is a shift in culture where we no longer tolerate inappropriate behavior. Can we just call that racism?” said Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield.

“There’s all kinds of things,” Barton said. “Some of it is ageism, some of it is sexism. And I think to say that there’s systemic racism in the police department is overly broad and probably not accurate. Until we sit down and talk about it and can verify or at least ferret out what it is people are talking about, I think to put a label on it is really unfair and shortsighted.”

In an interview afterward, Dunaway said she was not satisfied with what she had heard from Barton and Ray Price, the chair of the Board of Police Commissioners.

“I understand that she is in a tough position,” Dunaway said. “But until we admit that racism exists, we cannot meaningfully try to fix it.”

Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-Bel Nor, agreed.

“You cannot address an issue if you don’t accept the fact that there is one in the first place. And I’m speaking of racism,” she said. “It is happening here in St. Louis County every single day. It is happening in your department.”

Price, the chair of the police board, told Days he agreed that there are racial issues in the community, including the department, that needed to be addressed. 

Defunding police

Barton also said Tuesday she cannot support directing funds from the police department to social services, a movement known as defunding the police.

County police already partner with outside organizations to address issues like domestic violence and mental health without using law enforcement, Barton said. But any increased funding for them should come from sources other than her budget, she said.

“Defunding the police would have the hardest impact on those areas that need the police the most,” Barton said. "And we would increase the victimization of people who are the least able to protect themselves.”

The chief said she is re-evaluating how the department handles neighborhood policing. She said she wants officers assigned to those positions to focus less on disputes between neighbors like uncut grass and parked cars and more on what communities think are the real issues.

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.