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Messenger: Trust in criminal justice in St. Louis goes up in flames as Roorda and Gardner camps play with fire

Messenger: Trust in criminal justice in St. Louis goes up in flames as Roorda and Gardner camps play with fire

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Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, welcomes newly appointed Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards to the watch party as they await updates on Proposition P election results at the union headquarters on Friday, Nov. 7, 2017. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

In St. Louis, everybody wants to fire somebody.

So it was, late last month, when a group of community organizations sent a letter to the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanding that the group fire its incendiary business manager and sometime spokesman, Jeff Roorda.

The letter, signed by the NAACP, Missouri Faith Values, the MacArthur Justice Center and several other local organizations, came after Roorda went on a local radio show and suggested that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner be removed from office “by force or by choice.”

“Roorda’s statement includes language that incites violence and is dangerous to our communities,” the letter to the police officers association President Ed Clark read. “By bullying and threatening behavior towards Gardner, Roorda is making St. Louis less safe. This most recent statement by Roorda is just one example amid a history of unacceptable and unwarranted provocations by Roorda towards Gardner and other city officials. … We urge you to join Gardner in protecting St. Louis, hold Roorda accountable for his actions, and fire Roorda now.”

It’s not the first time, and likely won’t be the last, that organizations have called for Roorda to be fired.

It happened in 2017, during the mayoral race, when then-Alderman Lyda Krewson called for the union to fire Roorda after he called Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who was also running for mayor, a “cop-hater” and a “race-baiter.”

Jones, of course, had already called for Roorda to be fired, as had many like-minded people, going back to his angry and divisive statements and social media posts during and after the Ferguson protests.

He wasn’t fired then. And he probably won’t be this time.

Why?

It’s likely Roorda can’t be fired without his consent.

Some time ago, a source shared with me a copy of Roorda’s contract. It includes a section titled termination that reads: “This agreement shall only be terminated through mutual agreement of both of the parties hereto. However, the SLPOA shall not unreasonably withhold its consent to terminate this agreement upon timely notice of resignation of employment by JEFF ROORDA.”

The contract was originally agreed to in 2011 and had provisions for it to be extended.

Roorda declined to say whether his current contract contains the same language.

Of course, when asked about the recent calls for his firing, which include a new website titled fireroordanow.com, Roorda denied he did anything wrong and said in an email that Gardner “needs to go for the good of this city.”

That’s not going to happen either.

Despite her problems — and some of them are of legitimate concern — Gardner was elected by the residents of St. Louis, and they’ll decide at the ballot box in 2020 whether she stays or goes.

There is a case to be made for both possibilities. Gardner has done many of the things she told voters she would do: start a conviction integrity unit (which is being thwarted by the status quo), implement and support criminal justice reform measures such as reducing the use of cash bail, hiring reform-minded prosecutors, holding police accountable for their own failures and violations of law.

But her inability to administer the office in a way that maintains any staff continuity is problematic. As my colleague Joel Currier reported, more than 65 prosecutors have come and gone since Gardner took over, including many of the ones in a second wave of hires after she started cleaning house. Her office is also losing in the courtroom, including a recent double murder case that got tossed by the judge after the prosecutor failed to meet necessary legal burdens, before the defense had even presented its case.

Two things can be true at the same time.

Gardner can be under relentless, and in some cases, unfair, attack from the status quo — particularly the police union — because she represents a new way of thinking about the role of the prosecutor. The same thing is happening in other jurisdictions in which progressive-minded prosecutors have been elected, such as Philadelphia; Tampa, Florida; Chicago; San Francisco; Brooklyn, New York; and Baltimore.

But she’s also had missteps of her own making — including the hiring of an investigator who has been accused of lying to the court during the dropped prosecution of former Gov. Eric Greitens.

In the end, voters will decide whether they’re going to give her a chance to find her way.

To some degree, they will decide Roorda’s fate as well.

While Krewson called for him to be fired in 2017, she was the candidate supported by the police union, and she won. The Trumpian tactics employed by Roorda are cheered by some who believe that even amid well-documented corruption and institutional racism, cops — at least the white ones — must be backed at all times or their critics are “cop-haters.”

Again, two things can be true at the same time: Roorda’s rhetoric is a stain on the community, but he’s not going anywhere until the people who pay him realize he’s more trouble than he’s worth.

The residents of St. Louis deserve integrity and accountability in every aspect of the city’s criminal justice system.

Right now, it seems, both are in short supply.

Get Tony's e-newsletter: From City Hall to the Capitol, Pulitzer Prize-winning metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.




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