County officials are divided over whether there is systemic racism in the St. Louis County Police Department, with Democratic County Council members and even a member of the police board that just hired Chief Mary Barton questioning the leadership of the brand-new police chief on the issue.
Barton took over the department April 30, as former Chief Jon Belmar retired. Due to COVID-19, Barton’s swearing-in ceremony was held virtually rather than with the fanfare usually afforded a new police chief — especially the first female one — and she has not been able to meet in person with the usual stakeholders that she otherwise would have, including the County Council. She previously served as the commander of the West County Precinct, and was outside the central command leadership under Belmar.
At a videoconferenced County Council Committee of the Whole meeting June 9, the council officially met the chief, and 2nd District Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, asked her where she sees systemic racism in the department.
Many police departments are adopting a slate of eight policy reforms called “Eight Can’t Wait.” But the county police department has already had all eight of those in place since 2010 with most of them in place since the 1990s, Barton said.
Despite those reforms going into effect long ago, Barton said she plans to make the department more inclusive, and that she herself had encountered obstacles on that front during her 40 years in the department. She said the department already has extensive training, but she promised more.
She promised to no longer tolerate “inappropriate” or “insensitive” comments in the workplace, and to provide training to officers about why that is an issue.
But on systemic racism, Barton said, “I think to say there’s systemic racism in the Police Department is overly broad and probably not accurate. I think that to a certain degree people believe what they believe and until we sit down and talk about or can verify or at least ferret out what exactly it is people are talking about, I think to put a label on it is really unfair and shortsighted. And I would say that having been on a lot of these issues with just inappropriate things, people not thinking before they speak is a far cry from racism.”
The next day, police board member LJ Punch questioned “a lack of shared vision right now when it comes to understanding the issues at hand in the protests.”
In response, Barton acknowledged a “racial divide” in the department.
On Twitter, council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said she was “quite troubled” by the answer, and in a radio interview, 1st District Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, said, “I’m really particularly concerned with the chief that was selected for St. Louis County… My response is where have you been for the last years that you have been working with the St. Louis County Police Department? That was a statement that probably shook all of us or many of us.”
But 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, told The Call, “I didn’t hear anything in her answer that I disagreed with, it’s easy for people to paint with a broad brush and say that there’s systemic racism in the Police Department. I don’t know that we’ve seen any hard evidence of that. Do I think there are bad police officers, sure, the same way I know there are bad lawyers, bad doctors, bad reporters — that doesn’t mean that everyone who wears a uniform or walks into a courtroom is a bad person.”