The scrutiny that fell on the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the months after a white officer in 2014 fatally shot an African American teenager revealed a fragmented approach to policing in the region with disparate standards and priorities, according to John Chasnoff.
With more than 80 towns in St. Louis County alone, there are dozens of police chiefs from different backgrounds facing different pressures, leading to “very inconsistent policing,” said Chasnoff, an activist who works with the St. Louis-based Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression.
“I think ever since the Ferguson uprising in 2014 … it’s been recognized that we have a very disjointed law enforcement community in our region,” he said.
Reform measures outlined in the Ferguson Commission report — and more recently demanded by protesters coast to coast in the aftermath of a Black man’s death while in Minneapolis police custody — have already been adopted by some law enforcement agencies, but not by others. Many of the measures are enshrined in state law in Illinois but haven’t been adopted in Missouri, outside of state requirements for police officer training.
A recent survey by the Post-Dispatch of regional agencies found a hodgepodge of policies across the area, with some reforms in place for years or in progress elsewhere, and rejected outright by others. Fifty-three law enforcement departments were asked a series of questions including whether they have civilian oversight panels, if de-escalation training is provided and if officers patrol wearing body cameras. About half responded.
Roughly a quarter of the agencies that responded have a civilian board that controls the hiring, firing and promotion of officers and appeals of police discipline. That includes all responding agencies in Illinois, where state law mandates a civilian board in municipalities with a population over 5,000.
But the response to civilian oversight differs greatly elsewhere. Northwest of St. Louis in Lincoln County, Sheriff John Cottle said, “I’m an elected official, that’s about the best oversight you can get.”
All responding departments said their officers undergo de-escalation training. Many get that training at least once a year. In Illinois, the state requires an annual one-day use-of-force training. At least three departments have pledged to send all officers to crisis intervention team training aimed to divert people with mental health disorders and addictions from the criminal justice system and instead help them access medical treatment.
All the departments have an internal review procedure for the use of deadly force. Illinois law also mandates a review by state police.
In Fairview Heights, even displaying a stun gun or gun prompts a review. Software called Guardian Tracking flags officers who exceed a certain amount of reviews in a particular time period, a spokesperson said.
Only two agencies, Fairview Heights and St. Charles County police, said they have civilian representation in their reviews of deadly force.
‘Don’t need them’
Inconsistencies can also be found when it comes to other law enforcement tactics and procedures.
Illinois has a statewide law that classifies chokeholds as deadly force, whereas Missouri has no such law. However, each Missouri agency that responded to the Post-Dispatch said they don’t allow the practice.
No-knock warrants can only be authorized by a judge, the departments told the Post-Dispatch. Most said they seldom come across a situation where one is needed. Smaller departments rely on SWAT teams from their county sheriff’s office or the state police in Illinois to handle tactical search warrants.
Meanwhile, half of the Missouri agencies that were surveyed said all officers have body cameras. St. Louis, Clayton and Creve Coeur police are in the process of equipping all officers; St. Charles County, O’Fallon and Manchester are considering getting them in the near future.
None of the Illinois agencies reported having body cameras, saying state regulations on data storage and redaction made them too costly.
Nineteen agencies said they had dashboard cameras.
Asked whether his officers use body cameras, St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson said, “We don’t need them because our officers don’t have those problems.”
Creve Coeur police Chief Glenn Eidman says accreditation of police departments through agencies such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement, or CALEA, is essential as new, modified practices are adopted.
“Accreditation establishes a foundation within agencies that focuses on achieving the best outcomes. It provides consistent internal and external review, a third-party validation of an agency’s policies and procedures. While it does not prevent all negative outcomes, it does set the course for success,” he said in an email.
David Hayes, director of the Southern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, said the standardization of police policy and training across Illinois is vital. “In Missouri, I’ve seen too many variations of policies,” he said.
Illinois also has a centralized database that’s managed by a police training board. By law, any police misconduct must be reported, and it becomes a part of the officer’s permanent record. In the St. Louis area, Hayes said there are 55 to 60 departments, so “if you get a bad apple and one department gets rid of them, all of a sudden you might find them hired somewhere else.”
Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor emeritus in criminology, said the differences in policing are likely the result of the patchwork of cities that make up the St. Louis area, and their differing leadership, size and resources.
Rosenfeld said what the public needs now is for St. Louis County police to assume a leadership role, sharing best practices with other county municipalities and helping implement them. He doesn’t envision that as management of the departments, and he said that police should focus on key issues, including use of force, de-escalation training, civilian oversight and police accountability.
Jerryl Christmas, an activist and attorney with several clients involved in recent encounters with police, said the inconsistencies are due to the lack of national legislation or mandates covering expectations for police departments and officers. “I think that is what is going to be needed,” he said.
The Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, lauded state efforts to increase the required hours of training in use of force and de-escalation in Missouri.
“We’re pleased, of course, that people are working to meet those standards,” he said, but added that the “the question is really not, ‘Have you checked these boxes?’” Law enforcement agencies and public officials need to do “a strategic re-envisioning of your public safety approach.” Few departments have done that around the country, Wilson said.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner said her No. 1 issue is “police accountability,” calling it crucial for public safety. She called the St. Louis area “ground zero for the reform effort and the issues highlighting police violence,” but faulted civilian oversight and disciplinary measures for officers. She said some complaints about police don’t make it to a civilian oversight board, and lawsuits against police need to be better tracked.
In recent days, other St. Louis officials have called for a registry of officers who have engaged in misconduct.
Gardner, who has been frequently criticized by the police union, said there should be “zero tolerance for any kind of misconduct,” and “strong consequences” for officers who are silent about misconduct, going further than those calling just for a “duty to intervene” when they see questionable behavior.
She also said training of officers for issues like de-escalation needs to be done by outsiders, not by those within a department.
Organized by Black Lives Matter activists, the campaign seeks to ban chokeholds and shooting at vehicles. It requires officers to exhaust all other options before shooting and intervene to stop colleagues from using excessive force, among other measures.
Chasnoff, with the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, said the focus should be on broader reform, rather than a list of action items.
His group doesn’t support body cameras, which Chasnoff called “incredibly expensive,” “something of a fad” and a risk to privacy. “When it comes to police reforms, we’re trying to look at things that will move us down that road … rather than put more money in policing.”
Chasnoff said he also understood the focus on chokeholds, but said, “it just seems like police are killing people with a variety of methods.”
“If they can’t use chokeholds, something else is gonna happen,” he said.
The coalition has been advocating for years for “divesting” from police and “re-investing” in housing, education and social services to address the root causes of crime, a version of defunding the police.
Chasnoff said data he obtained on SWAT deployments in St. Louis from 2012 to 2018 showed that 97% of the 1,785 deployments were for the execution of so-called “high risk” search warrants. He said national statistics show that African Americans are more than five times more likely to be affected by a SWAT search warrant raid than whites.
Clayton lawyer Bevis Schock, who represented a St. Louis man whose home was raided by police in 2014, said he obtained a similar spreadsheet of raids and also found that “the vast, vast majority were in poor Black neighborhoods.”
Schock said police shouldn’t use the SWAT team in routine drug cases. He said appeals courts have ruled that there has to be more to justify a no-knock warrant than drugs and guns. Police have to believe that there was a risk that a suspect might use a gun against police. And he said that there was little difference between a no-knock warrant and a raid in which police knock and announce themselves and begin breaking down a door.
Lewis Reed, president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, on Thursday proposed a ban on no-knock warrants.
Christmas, the lawyer, said, “I think with every movement, you get some change.”
Many of those movements, however, have been touched off by the death of a person of color, something Christmas acknowledges.
“But that’s the only way that we can make a movement,” he said. “That’s when we have everybody’s attention.”