ST. LOUIS — It was six days into this city's latest round of protests over racial injustice, six days since another white police officer was acquitted in the shooting of another black man, and a typically dull meeting of the St. Louis Board of Estimate and Apportionment had just turned — like so many other things here — into a display of anger and passion.
“Lyda Krewson, vote yes!” a few dozen people shouted across the packed room at the city’s new mayor, who just months into her job is facing an intense pressure that has been here for years.
In the streets, throngs of protesters during the past week have called on her and her government to get serious about overhauling a local police force that they say is racist, abusive and unjust.
The powerful police union and its supporters want her to do just the opposite: come out strongly in support of the police and condemn the protesters, who have smashed windows and disrupted commerce.
And on this day, in this meeting, a fellow lawmaker and a room full of people who supported the protests were urging her to approve a hastily drafted body camera trial program for police officers — something that she supports but that she thinks needs careful consideration and budgeting.
“I’ll vote today in favor of body cameras, but is there any way we can actually go about this in a proper way?” she finally said.
It has been three years since a white police officer in the nearby suburb of Ferguson, Mo., killed an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown, setting off a wave of protests and a police response that captured worldwide attention. The protests spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, threw a spotlight on the way police departments across America treat black citizens and highlighted the growing militarization of the country’s police forces.
Three years, new leadership, same old concerns.
As Krewson said this week: “We here in St. Louis are once again ground zero for the frustration and anger.”
In Missouri, the backlash to Brown’s 2014 killing gave rise to a stack of reports and hundreds of recommendations for how police can do a better job of meting out justice fairly and safely, aiming to replace rage in the streets with respect and cooperation.
But although the state passed a law that makes it more difficult for local municipalities to treat their poor, often black, citizens as sources of revenue through aggressive ticketing and jailing — a major source of anger ahead of the Ferguson protests — there has been little action by local police departments toward resolving or even acknowledging the existence of racial discrimination.
“There are all these policy recommendations and proposals that have all, for the most part, been ignored by city officials and leadership in the police department,” said Kayla Reed, a local college student and activist with the St. Louis Action Council who emerged as a prominent voice during the Ferguson protests. “I think what we are seeing is a real reluctance to listen to the community, to step into leadership about ushering in a new era of progress. And that, plus continued repression and brutality at the hands of the police, have ignited once again those feelings like, ‘We have to take to the streets, we have to shut things down, we have to show we’re not going anywhere.’ ”
‘Is it okay if I frisk you?’
The latest bout of anger kicked off Sept. 15, when a circuit court judge acquitted former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of murder in the 2011 shooting death of a 24-year-old black man named Anthony Lamar Smith.
Stockley had engaged Smith in a high-speed police chase after Smith crashed into Stockley’s police car. Stockley, who declared during the chase that he was “going to kill this motherf---er, don’t you know it,” ultimately shot Smith at close range through a car window. Prosecutors alleged that Stockley also planted a gun on Smith because only Stockley’s DNA was found on the weapon. But the judge, Timothy Wilson, wrote in a detailed decision at the conclusion of a bench trial that he wasn’t convinced that Stockley was guilty: The former officer would walk free.
To many St. Louis residents, particularly in the city’s predominantly black northern neighborhoods, it was Michael Brown all over again.
“No justice, no peace!” they chanted during day and night protests, a small group of them clashing with police, hurling rocks and paint, and smashing windows of businesses and the mayor’s house.
It was the same anger as three years ago, in large part because little has changed about the conditions of life in and around St. Louis. It is still a racially divided city, activists say. And it is still one of the most violent cities in America, a place where police say they come into contact with people carrying weapons on a daily basis.
“We’ve led the nation in homicides per capita for the past two years, and we’re on track to lead the country again,” said Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 68, which represents 1,100 St. Louis city officers on a force in which the starting salary is $42,000 and where “stress” is a word that officials often use to describe officers’ state of mind.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, city police have shot and killed more people this year — eight — than in any other year in the past decade.
In the Ville, the neighborhood where Smith was living before he was killed, the racial disparities run deep. The black community is underserved in access to education, jobs and a wide range of public services, activists and city officials say.
The brick houses are dilapidated and abandoned. Many have broken or boarded-up windows. And no one is out in the street during the day because there is nowhere to go: nowhere to work, nowhere to shop, residents say. If you have a job, you drive to it someplace else.
Poverty and crime are just as rampant, if not more so, than they were in the past, residents say. And all of it contributes to the toxic cycle of mistrust and resentment between a predominantly white police force and a predominantly black community in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
A black person sitting outside on the porch is all that’s necessary to attract police attention, residents say. Officers will pull up, ask for identification and then frisk, said Ronnie Bartee and Kerry Tate, who were standing outside Tate’s carwash on a recent afternoon. “You ain’t gotta be doing nothing,” said Bartee, 43.
“Their favorite words are: ‘Is it okay if I frisk you?’ ” said Tate, 48.
A spokeswoman for the police department did not respond to those allegations. “We hold our officers to the highest standards of professionalism, and any officer not meeting those standards will be held accountable,” Leah K. Freeman said. “Anyone who would like to make a complaint of officer misconduct is encouraged to contact our Internal Affairs Division.”
Allegations of misconduct
One of the foremost obstacles to police restructuring, activists across the country have said, is the justice system’s failure to hold police accountable for violations.
“We have a pattern of not holding our officers accountable,” said Sgt. Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police, an association of mostly black police officers that has repeatedly challenged bias within the St. Louis police force. Everyone in the department’s internal unit tasked with investigating police-involved shootings is white, she added.
The police department confirmed that the five-person unit is all white.
“There are three different types of anger,” said April Floyd, a local writer and a regular attendee at protests. There is the righteous justice crowd that has responded to these realities with cries of “no justice, no peace,” thinking that enough noise can yield results. There are those who believe in shutting down the “process” — obstructing local business, for example, as a way to call attention to the cause, Floyd said. And there are those “who believe, ‘You hit me, and I’m going to hit you back,’ ” she added.
Of all the grievances cited by protesters since the Sept. 15 verdict, after days of sometimes-violent clashes with tossed bricks, clouds of pepper spray and sweeping arrests, the story that is perhaps most provocative of protester rage was the chanting Sept. 17.
“Whose streets? Our streets,” police chanted, after corralling a group of protesters and lining them up against a wall.
“Officers were high-fiving each other,” said John Ziegler, an activist and videographer who had been live-streaming the protest under the Twitter handle “@Rebelutionary_Z.” They were pointing at their arrestees and snapping pictures, saying things like, “They’re communists and socialists,” and “They’re here to destroy America,” Ziegler said.
The next day, interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole declared “we owned tonight.” And the day after that, a St. Louis police officer posted a picture on social media of a Black Lives Matter protest with the words “THE KLAN WITH A TAN” and “DOMESTIC TERRORISTS.”
The mayor said the allegations of misconduct, including the police chants and the officer’s social-media post, are under investigation.
A police spokesman defended the department’s actions during the recent protests but declined to answer specific questions about police conduct.
“The department has facilitated peaceful and lawful demonstrations to ensure those who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights can safely do so. We deploy tactics when criminal activity arises and escalation depends on the level of aggression,” police spokeswoman Schron Y. Jackson wrote in an email. “The police department strives to employ best practices; however, we are always open to new ideas.”
Krewson promised that the allegations of misconduct would be investigated internally by the police department, as well as by the Department of Public Safety. She called the police chief’s comment “inflammatory.” She condemned the “institutional racism” plaguing American society and vowed to make St. Louis a leader in resolving its long-standing inequality. She praised police for their “restraint” and dismissed the allegation that police misconduct and racism were widespread.
Then she canceled the week’s town hall meetings — the only formal opportunity in the wake of the Stockley verdict for residents to vent their questions and complaints in a public forum.
And no one really seemed satisfied.
“I really feel for her. She’s afraid,” Floyd said. “But she has to listen to people. She has to know how to comfort people.”
Krewson knows that such meetings are important. She knows the protesters think she's being too weak. She knows the police think so, too. Asked whether the rank and file were upset with her, she acknowledged on a recent afternoon that they "probably" were.
A friend who she has known for three decades had just sent her a couple of angry text messages — she, too, was disappointed.
"She's very mad at me," Krewson said. "She thinks I don't support police. She thinks that you can't support protesters' First Amendment rights and still support police."
Krewson looked tired. "But that isn't hard for me to see at all."
Wesley Lowery in Washington contributed to this report.