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Antonio French: No systemic racism? County police department needs an intervention.

Antonio French: No systemic racism? County police department needs an intervention.


The situation in St. Louis County went from bad to worse this week as yet another police department worker dropped a racial slur. Meanwhile, the last “N-word” bomber in the department received praise and best wishes from county government. This all comes as a potentially costly racial-discrimination lawsuit was filed in circuit court Wednesday. The situation caused both the County Council chair and the group presenting Black officers to call out the complete lack of leadership as systemic racism in St. Louis County continues to go unaddressed.

Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, who was passed over for the job of police chief, filed a discrimination lawsuit against St. Louis County Wednesday morning in circuit court. As I reported last week, a state commission gave Doyle clearance to proceed with his lawsuit following an investigation of his discrimination complaint. Doyle, who is Black, alleges that race was a factor in why the St. Louis County Police Board did not hire him and instead made Mary Barton the next leader following Chief Jon Belmar’s retirement last year.

“We’re also alleging retaliation because [Doyle] had consistently opposed things he saw and believed were discriminatory, and he was outspoken about that,” Doyle’s attorney, Jerome Dobson, told me. He said County Executive Sam Page, who at first appeared to back Doyle to become the county’s first Black police chief, chickened out after his campaign donors expressed concern. “He told Troy he was getting pushback about Troy being the next chief and that it was based on Troy’s race,” said Dobson.

Back in July, Dobson released an audio recording in which Page told Doyle, “This police board will do what I tell them to do.” That clip was from a conversation months after police commissioners passed over Doyle and as Page was recruiting him to act as liaison between the department and the Teneo Group, a private consultant hired to perform a review of the department.

Teneo’s report, released in December, concluded there was a “serious racial divide within the organization” and that there was a “narrowing window of opportunity for the chief to address this racial divide, exert new leadership and lead positive cultural change.” That window has continued to close as Barton has failed to lead on this issue, at one point denying systemic racism even existed in her department.

The Teneo report noted that several Black officers had filed suits “claiming retaliation for voicing racial discrimination concerns, while others have alleged the use of racial slurs in officer training.” Amazingly, that’s exactly what happened again this week.

In a letter Tuesday to department employees, Barton wrote, “I regret to inform you that another contracted instructor at our St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy used language in the classroom setting that is inconsistent with our values and below our expectations.” A press release went on to say the instructor “used language disparaging towards African Americans, Hispanics, and women in the course of a class.” No further details were given, but this is not the first time racist language has been used by police personnel.

Barton’s brother-in-law, Mark Peeler, a police dispatcher, used a racial slur last month referring to a Black officer live over the police radio. The chief and the police board have not said what happened to Peeler as a consequence of his actions, just that he left the department. But in this month’s St. Louis County government newsletter, which also recognizes February as Black History Month, Peeler is congratulated and wished a “Happy Retirement” along with other recent retirees. “We honor your passion and dedication,” the newsletter states.

“Peeler’s actions should have resulted in a swift termination, strong and public reprimanding, and meaningful action to prevent similar racists acts in the future,” the Ethical Society of Police said in a statement. The group, which represents Black officers in St. Louis city and county, said the county police department “failed on all three of these counts and the St. Louis County government office now is irresponsibly following suit” by praising Peeler.

The chair of the St. Louis County Council also thinks county police department leadership is failing. In a letter Tuesday to the police board, chair Rita Days, D-1st District, called the commissioners “negligent and irresponsible in their own appointed duties.”

“My hope was that you would recognize the need for strong leadership at this time and you would deliver. I am no longer confident that you can do either,” Days wrote.

The failures of the chief, the board, and ultimately the county executive to address the well-documented and costly discrimination and racial division within the department gives little hope that similar divisions between police and the minority communities they patrol will ever be eliminated.

“We as a metropolitan area are poorer for not having Troy Doyle as police chief of the largest police department in the state,” Dobson told me.

“Troy Doyle earned that position,” he said. “He was the best qualified person for that position. And the fact that he didn’t get the position and Mary Barton did, to me is just a stellar example of systemic racism in this area.”

Doyle will soon have his day in court and county taxpayers may once again have to pay for the ongoing failure of leadership in county government.

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Antonio French is an opinion columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also a member of the editorial board.

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