ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The Missouri NAACP is asking federal authorities to take over investigation of whether a St. Louis County police supervisor ordered officers to engage in racial profiling.
Adolphus Pruitt, a state official with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said a letter sent last week to the Kansas City office of the Justice Department asks that it conduct the probe instead of leaving the matter to the county’s own internal affairs officers.
“We asked the Justice Department to get involved, and we asked the FBI to get involved,” said Pruitt, who also is president of the NAACP’s St. Louis branch.
He said the letter was composed after the Post-Dispatch reported Feb. 7 that Lt. Patrick “Rick” Hayes was suspended pending investigation for allegedly ordering officers to target and arrest blacks in and around a south St. Louis County shopping center and Walmart.
Hayes, who has denied the claim, is on paid administrative leave.
County Police Chief Tim Fitch said he has not heard from federal officials about the matter. Bad weather closed the Justice Department office in Kansas City on Thursday.
Fitch said his investigators have not received complaints from anyone claiming to have been targeted for police harassment.
“I welcome any investigation that a federal agency would want to conduct, and we would assist them in that investigation,” said Fitch. He said the county probe could be done within a month.
Officials with the NAACP’s St. Louis County chapter said Fitch had been briefing them on the progress of the internal probe, and they have agreed to wait until it is finished before deciding whether to take further action.
Pruitt said the letter was not meant as a statement of mistrust of the county police. But, he said, “We would prefer that all of the (county) officers involved are questioned by federal authorities, as opposed to local authorities.
“That way, the chance of someone giving false information to an investigator is less,” he said. “The penalties are much greater for giving false information to federal authorities.”
Pruitt also said county investigators might either feel intimidated by having to investigate fellow officers, or that they might be influenced by “the blue shield” of camaraderie and be less diligent.
The county’s inquiry began after Fitch and Lt. Col. Ken Gregory, who oversees patrol officers, received an anonymous letter dated Dec. 24 from a county officer making the allegations.
County officers who have been interviewed so far confirmed that Hayes gave “inappropriate” racially based orders, but all of them said they did not comply, Fitch said. He said he has no reason to believe those officers were untruthful.
“If they were willing to step forward and make the allegations they made in the first place, why would they tell half-truths?” he asked.
Fitch also said that he has received calls and letters supporting Hayes’ character. Hayes is the county police committee chairman for the Missouri Special Olympics.
Police sources said Hayes told about 20 officers to check the license plates of black drivers and arrest them if there were outstanding warrants.
Meanwhile, the NAACP’s letter itself has sparked a rift between chapters of the civil rights group.
County NAACP president Esther Haywood said the state branch should not have intervened until county police had completed their investigation.
The Rev. B.T. Rice, first vice president of the county chapter, said it has nearly completed its own investigation. He said he would not release those findings until the police probe is done.
Haywood also contends that if any NAACP chapter should have asked for federal involvement, it should have been hers — and not the city chapter that Pruitt heads.
The city chapter has “no intention of doing anything with us. They just took it up on their own,” Haywood said. “St. Louis (city) could be working on their own things if they would.”
Haywood also said she is unhappy that she received a letter from Mary A. Ratliff, the state NAACP president, essentially telling the county group to back off.
“Going by the (state) constitution, (Ratliff) said we’re not to be involved. We disagreed with her interpretation,” said Haywood, adding that she has asked the national NAACP office to weigh in.
Ratliff noted that Pruitt is leading this charge through his post as state chairman of the NAACP Legal Redress Committee, which investigates racial profiling cases in all Missouri jurisdictions.
“It’s my job to determine which issues we get involved in (at the state level), and racial profiling is bigger than one chapter,” Ratliff said. “I know the county (chapter) is not happy with this, but that’s the way it is.”
Doug Moore and Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.