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Policing Takes Center Stage In St. Louis County Executive Democratic Primary

A peace march in Kirkwood June 6, 2020
File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Demonstrators march in Kirkwood on June 6.

As dusk settled in on a Sunday night at the end of May, Latoya Smith was watching protests in front of the Ferguson Police Department. 

Smith wanted to show her solidarity with people outraged over the killing of Black people, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police.

Like thousands of people who marched in and around St. Louis County over the past two months, Smith says the status quo for policing is unacceptable. These demonstrators want public officials, such as the candidates running for St. Louis County executive, to listen.

“We’re just tired of this killing going on. You know, killing us like we’re dogs and slaves,” Smith said. “That stuff should be over with. We just want to live our life and be happy.”

All four Democratic candidates for county executive — Sam Page, Jake Zimmerman, Mark Mantovani and Jamie Tolliver — say they are the right person to bridge social, economic and public safety divides between white and Black residents. Even though the office lacks direct power over the county or municipal law enforcement agencies, it can be used to influence others to adopt changes.

And since St. Louis County has one of the largest populations of Black residents in the entire state, the candidate who connects to those voters could have an inside track to winning the primary.

Direct vs. indirect power

Col. Mary Barton, pictured May 1, 2020.
Credit File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton's comments on racism within her department prompted widespread criticism. A police board with a majority of members appointed by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page selected Barton to lead the agency.

Unlike the mayor of St. Louis, the St. Louis County executive does not have direct control over police. The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners is responsible for overseeing that agency, including selecting the chief. Board members are appointed by the county executive.

The county also doesn’t have direct control over municipal police departments that patrol cities in St. Louis County. Often, though, the county department contracts with municipalities, like Wildwood, Jennings and Valley Park, to provide service.

That doesn’t mean that county executives have been passive observers when it comes to police policy. Before he went to prison for corruption, Steve Stenger sought to institute standards on municipal police departments that were ultimately thrown out in court. 

Page isbacking a privately fundedstudy that would look into the county police department’s operations. 

“We're having some very real conversations about how we can examine our police department, how we can do better, and how we can re-engage the community to trust the county police,” Page said. “We're lucky we have a very good brand in St. Louis County. But there's always opportunities for improvement. And we're going to do a deep dive into our county police department and look for those opportunities.”

Some of Page’s detractors have been especially critical of how he’s handled law enforcement-related matters. Councilman Tim Fitch, a former county police chief, panned the study as usurping the police board’s role in overseeing the department.

Others have been upset with comments by Chief Mary Barton, who was selected by a police board with a majority of members who were appointed by Page. Barton encountered widespread criticism after she disputed that there was systemic racism within her department. Zimmerman has been highly critical of Barton as well.

“That is not leadership. That's denialism,” said Zimmerman, who is the county assessor. “That's sticking your head in the sand. Let's say it, let's say it directly. There is a huge problem with racism, institutionalized in our institutions going far beyond police. But there is a problem with police violence right here in St. Louis County.”

Barton later walked back her comments. Page added that Barton “has to find words and vocabulary to express what she means with her heart and what she wants to see in the department.”

“And as a new police chief initially, she struggled with that,” Page said. “We've heard different descriptions, different words to describe what she wants to do in the department. And I'm going to give her the opportunity to find those words and to lead the department, again, under the direction of the police board, who sets the policy.”

Building trust

St. Louis County Police Board members Ray Price and Michelle Schwerin
Credit File photo I Julie O'Donoghue I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Board members Ray Price and Michelle Schwerin were appointed by Page.

Zimmerman has pointed toa multifaceted plan to overhaul policing in the county, including changes to how police are trained and investigated. 

“What we need to do is we need to re-evaluate and rethink policing in this whole region,” Zimmerman said. “We need to have the guts to confront situations where guns and batons should be the last resort and not the first resort. We need to engage with all sectors of the police force.”

Mantovani has been endorsed by the St. Louis County Police Officers Association. The retired businessman said such support dovetails with his mindset that “one creates change more by having thoughtful conversations with people about how to change than by throwing stones at them and being accusatorial.”

While some activists view groups like the officers association as an impediment to making law enforcement policy changes, Mantovani said he doesn’t believe “there is as much difference of opinion on this topic as others might suggest.”

“To begin the process of leading [St. Louis County] with an adversarial relationship that is built on resentment seems to me to be ill-advised,” Mantovani said. “But it does not mean that status quo is my objective here. People who know me will tell you I don't do maintenance. I'm not seeking this position in order to preserve the status quo. I'm seeking this position in order to create change in the St. Louis region.”

Tolliver, of University City, said she would solicit feedback from county residents about how they want the police department to change.

She said politicians “feel as though they have the answer, because they feel as though people just really want to be told what to do.” 

“One of the biggest things is making sure that where the police forces are, that they represent the group that they are protecting and serving,” Tolliver said. “And I know that has been expressed to me by several people when I'm out on the campaign trail: The police should live in the areas that they are policing, because then you're very well aware of who it is that you're trying to help and who it is that need your concerns.”

The county executive primary is Aug. 4. Two Republicans, Paul Berry III and Ed Golterman, are seeking their party’s nomination. Whoever wins the Democratic primary is heavily favored to win the general election in November.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.