Defending the integrity of the criminal justice system

Kimberly M. Gardner

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner at a press conference in May 2018. Photo by Nikos Frazier, nfrazier@post-dispatch.com

Public trust is a vital component of the criminal justice system. Police integrity is a fundamental element required to maintain that trust. As circuit attorney, I have the legal and ethical responsibility to defend the integrity of the criminal justice system, granted and upheld by the law, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Missouri Supreme Court.

Common sense tells us that to properly prosecute crimes, officer credibility is essential. The officer’s word is often taken over that of citizens, with both judges and juries frequently awarding a tie to the officer. That’s why officer credibility is so important.

This is so common that in January, 55 current and former law enforcement officials sent a letter in support of my use of an exclusion list to address police credibility, noting that this process is a well-established best practice throughout the nation.

There are four primary reasons why some police officers would find themselves on this list:

• Veracity or truthfulness: We have excluded officers from making warrant applications when we have evidence that an officer has not been completely truthful on a police report, in statements, or in testimony. Officers can’t pick and choose when they will be truthful and when they won’t.

• Intimidation/undue influence: On occasion, officers try to use intimidation or undue influence (yelling, screaming, pounding on the table) to persuade prosecutors to file a charge when a prosecutor believes there is insufficient evidence. Prosecutors understand police frustration when they feel strongly about a case but we must prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law with real evidence — not with gut feelings.

• Lack of participation in the criminal justice system: This office expects that if an officer brings a case to prosecutors to file charges against a person, and we charge that case, then he/she will cooperate in the prosecution of that case. If an officer brings charges to us, and then refuses to cooperate when we prosecute an offender, that’s a problem.

• Officers under investigation: On rare occasions, police officers are under investigation either by my office, Internal Affairs or the U.S. Attorney’s Office. When we have information that puts an officer’s judgment, credibility or integrity in question, we have an obligation to protect the integrity of a criminal case.

I do not have control over how the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department runs its organization. I do have the discretion over what cases we charge and what witnesses we find credible. Having a lack of credibility or integrity is not a crime. However, when one of my prosecutors doesn’t believe the word of a witness, whether it be a drug dealer, a doctor or police officer, we have the duty to exclude them from taking away a person’s liberty. The community must have confidence that when we put witnesses on the stand, we believe these witnesses are telling the truth, regardless of their occupation.

The criminal justice system is intentionally organized with certain checks and balances. Prosecutors provide critical checks and balances for police, and this causes tension.

I am well aware that this natural tension frustrates some police officers and leaders of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The ongoing threats of retaliation from the union, as outlined in an editorial on Feb. 18, against anyone who attempts to hold police officers accountable, should concern all citizens. Almost daily, the leadership of the union makes outrageous claims that every decision I make will result in a more violent and dangerous community. So far, the data has proven them wrong, over and over again. Violent crime was down 16 percent in 2018, according to the police department.

I will not jeopardize the integrity of the criminal justice system by allowing the concerning actions of a small number of police officers to taint the good work of the credible and hardworking officers. We will continue to pursue current, open criminal cases involving these officers, as long as the criminal case can be proven without their testimony.

Police officers are granted great power. With that power comes an obligation to tell the truth at all times. Law enforcement officers are held to the highest standards of truthfulness and fairness because that’s what the community and justice demand.

Kimberly M. Gardner is the circuit attorney of St. Louis