South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Justice Department, county police partner in review of department’s practices

‘I invited this,’ county police chief says

In the wake of the protests in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of Justice is partnering with the St. Louis County Police Department to examine how the department handles racial profiling, stops and searches — a review that Police Chief Jon Belmar said he welcomes.

“I invited this, I wasn’t compelled to do it,” Belmar said Sept. 4. “There is not an overwatch — I don’t report to anybody. But it’s a collaboration.”

The same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the federal review of the county Police Department, he also announced a broader civil rights investigation into the “patterns and practices” of the Ferguson Police Department, an investigation that could eventually spread to other county municipalities or to the county. The new investigation is separate from the ongoing Justice Department civil rights probe into the killing of teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

For now, the Justice Department community-policing team will review county police policies, procedures and training around racially profiling, stops, searches and what Belmar calls “bias-free policing.”

The chief reiterated that he welcomes the review, noting that in his interaction with other departments nationwide he has found that “frankly, in many ways, the (county) department’s a model. But our professional athletes practice every day also, so we’ve got to get better with that.”

As part of the federal review, Belmar also requested an “after-action review” of the county department’s response to the Ferguson protests that followed Brown’s death. While the review of policing practices will be a longer-term partnership that could take 18 months or extend to years, the after-action review should take about a month, the chief noted.

The militarized response of the county Police Department to the protests has spurred a $40 million lawsuit from five north county residents who said they were falsely arrested, thrown to the ground or beaten by county and Ferguson officers.

The county’s display of what looked like military-level force on seemingly peaceful protesters and its arrests of journalists during the protests was condemned by outside observers ranging from President Barack Obama to the North Korean government, which said St. Louis County’s response to the protests showed America is a “graveyard of human rights.”

However, Belmar defended the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, which he said came only when gunshots were fired and Molotov cocktails lobbed at officers.

“I would say we had the goal going into this of preservation of life, and we accomplished that,” Belmar said.

The police response and overtime costs for the county Police Department alone will cost the county more than $4 million, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to vehicles that were shot at during the protests, Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls said. The county is looking to the state and federal governments for reimbursement of those costs, but in the meantime, half the county’s emergency fund is depleted. The shortfall will be made up in the 2015 budget that County Executive Charlie Dooley is preparing now, Earls said.

Although the county Police Department is one of only six agencies in the world with three divisions accredited under the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., or CALEA, which scrutinizes departments’ policies governing racial profiling, the department faced allegations of racial profiling even before Ferguson.

The Missouri NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint with the Justice Department in January, alleging that former Lt. Patrick “Rick” Hayes of the South County Precinct encouraged his officers to racially profile African-Americans at South County Center and the Wal-Mart in Oakville and that officers working under Hayes targeted shoppers based only on their race.

County police fired Hayes in May 2013 after an internal investigation into the allegations, but then-Police Chief Tim Fitch said none of the patrol officers under Hayes actually followed his instructions to racially profile. Belmar took over as chief when Fitch retired Jan. 31.

When the Missouri NAACP first announced the complaint, the county chapter of the NAACP said it had conducted its own investigation into the allegations and found no systemic racial profiling in the department. After Hayes was fired, Fitch asked a team from the University of California at Los Angeles Center for Policing Equity to study the department and its traffic stop statistics to determine if the department racially profiles. That report has not yet been released.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, I have a very positive relationship with the NAACP. I’m a member,” Belmar said last week. “I’m very proud of the policies and procedures and operations that we have in place.

“Considering the amount of calls that we answer — when you balance that against complaints, it’s staggering how low a number that is, but yet, at the same time, I want to know those answers, and if we can possibly get better, we’re going to.”

Belmar deferred specific questions about the NAACP’s civil rights complaint to County Counselor Pat Redington, who told the Call that she does not know the status of the Justice Department’s investigation into the complaint.

The NAACP complaint alleges that Hayes switched the precinct’s focus in 2012 and 2013 from the influx of heroin into south county to curbing shoplifting at the mall and Wal-Mart by stopping black shoppers, especially if their license plates had a city address. As part of the effort, which the NAACP said was requested by mall management and Wal-Mart, an officer was posted full-time at each of the shopping centers.

All the African-Americans cited in the NAACP’s complaint are from the city and allege that they were shopping at South County Center when the county’s mall officer followed them without probable cause or approached them in the parking lot to ask what they were doing at the mall — then arrested them if they had any outstanding warrants.

In one case, an African-American man was arrested while his white girlfriend, who also had outstanding warrants, was allowed to go free, the NAACP alleged.