‘The fight has to change’: Why Ferguson activists ditched police reform
St. Louis didn’t seen a single substantive victory for police reform, thanks in large part to a police apparatus that stymies accountability.
Ferguson protest leader Brittany Ferrell helped gather people together to chant, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” during a protest in South St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014 (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).
This is part one of a collaboration between The Missouri Independent and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Read part two. Hear the audio version of this story here.
Ten days after Michael Brown, it was 25-year-old Kajieme Powell. Two months later, it was 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr. All in the St. Louis region.
Had it not been for the Ferguson uprising, the deaths of these Black men would have likely gone unnoticed, except for a small, dedicated group of activists who have been tracking police shootings since the 1960s.
They’d long been troubled by the local police’s treatment of Black residents and its culture of impunity, the opaque investigations and the often mind-boggling conclusions — such as the finding that the killing of 25-year-old Cary Ball Jr., shot 25 times at close range in 2013, was justified.
After Brown’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, the activists saw an opening.
They began drafting legislation to create a Civilian Oversight Board that would review the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s internal investigations into officers accused of excessive force, abuse of authority and discrimination. The group of seven city residents would also scrutinize the department’s investigations into officer-involved shootings and killings.
They’d gotten this bill passed in 2006, but the mayor had vetoed it.
This time, the reformers had some powerful new supporters — Ferguson protest leaders.
For months after Ferguson, people were marching to City Hall and shutting down busy intersections almost daily, demanding police reform. Young, Black Ferguson frontliners chanting into bullhorns were soon joined by people who’d never protested before — teens marching alongside their teachers, mothers wheeling babies in strollers.
This time, the mayor not only refrained from opposing the bill, he added his name as a co-sponsor.
The Civilian Oversight Board bill passed April 20, 2015. Exactly six years later, criminal justice reformer Tishaura Jones was inaugurated as St. Louis’ mayor, becoming the first African American woman to lead the city.
While the young Ferguson activists cheered at the bill’s final vote, many of the longtime Black activists — who had been advocating to pass this legislation for three decades — were more sedate.
“I was almost moved to tears, even though I know there is a hard road ahead of us,” said Jamala Rogers, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, who helped write the bill.
Since 2015, St. Louis police officers have shot 53 people, killing 27 of them, according to the Police Department. Yet the Civilian Oversight Board hasn’t reviewed a single one of those cases. And the Police Department has withheld nearly all of the complaints it receives against officers, leaving the board unable to fulfill its basic function.
“We don’t know what the nature of the complaint was,” said Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the oversight board’s commissioner. “We don’t know who it was against. We don’t know any of that information about any of those complaints.”
It’s been more than six years since Brown’s killing made St. Louis the epicenter of the most promising civil rights movement since the 1960s. Yet despite stacks of studies and seemingly unprecedented public support for change, St. Louis has not seen a single substantive victory for police reform, thanks in large part to an influential police union and a larger police apparatus that has stymied accountability.
Today, St. Louis continues to have the highest number of police shootings per capita in the nation and is home to a roiling public showdown over racism in policing.
The trajectory of the Civilian Oversight Board shows just how difficult it is to reform police departments from the outside, in St. Louis and across the United States.
But the challenges for the board and the hurdles faced by a long list of other police reforms have also provided a revolutionary lesson to the new generation of activists who came of age during Ferguson. They’re leading a new movement, one being watched around the nation, with a more ambitious agenda for confronting structural racism: Rather than trying to push reform from the outside, they’re audaciously taking control of the city’s institutions from the inside.
As a 24-year-old, Kayla Reed threw herself into activism after Brown’s killing, eventually becoming one of the reform movement’s leaders. In the beginning, she hunted down solutions to the problems she saw in each individual case of police brutality. And she quickly saw every reform she pushed for fail to fix anything.
“In Mike Brown’s case, there was no camera. And so people asked for body cameras. The officers were white. So people asked for more diversity,” she said. “There was no consequence for the officers. So people asked for a civilian oversight. But each of those solutions — more training, diversity, cameras, civilian oversight — only add more money to the police and can be derailed or controlled by the police union.”
Jones’ ascension to the mayor’s office stands as the movement’s crowning victory and is already leading to significant changes. Jones’ first executive order tackled the problems at the civilian board head on: She demanded that all complaints against police officers over the last five years be turned over to her office.
‘I will never see your complaint’
When the architects drew up the Civilian Oversight Board, they had a principal mission: to ensure the department was properly investigating complaints about police misconduct and excessive use of force that citizens regularly file.
It’s mostly unable to do that because the Police Department has not followed protocols outlined in the ordinance.
If people feel mistreated by a St. Louis police officer, the ordinance stated that they could find a “joint civilian complaint form” at all police facilities, which would be used by the Police Department and the board.
The police had only been providing people with an Internal Affairs Division complaint form, which stays at the Police Department.
By not using the proper form, the Police Department has effectively thwarted the intent of the oversight law. “I will never see your complaint,” said Taylor-Riley, the board’s commissioner.
The department did not respond to requests to comment for this story. The department did tell The Missouri Independent and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that it does not track the overall number of complaints.
However, there’s a way to get an idea of how many are actually filed. When a person fills out a joint civilian complaint form, a copy goes to both the Police Department and the Civilian Oversight Board, where each is stamped with case numbers from both entities. So, for example, the last complaint the board received in 2016 had the case numbers: COB 16-0017 and IAD 16-0407. That suggests it was the 17th case of the year for the board and the 407th case handled by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.
Using that method, from 2016 through 2019, the board saw a total of 125 cases; the Police Department received more than 3,000 complaints in that time.
Put another way, the oversight board reviewed less than 5% of residents’ complaints against St. Louis police.
In that first executive order, Jones not only demanded to get all the withheld complaints, but she also took steps to ensure that the Police Department followed the law. She ordered the Police Department to use the joint civilian complaint form that the bill had called for, effective immediately.
In a report obtained by The Missouri Independent and Reveal, the Civilian Oversight Board found that the vast majority of complaints it has received are made by Black men ages 25 to 49 against white officers. The board found that the Police Department has been interviewing fewer numbers of complainants and officers in recent years.
In 2019, the board received 25 complaints. Of those complaints, the police interviewed only one person. Board members are supposed to be invited to these interviews, but the board says members weren’t invited to that interview.
In the past, when board members were able to sit in on the department’s interviews with the complainants, they were able to change the tone of the interviews, said John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, who also helped write the bill that created the board.
“Early on, they were able to see that the police were treating complainants more like they were suspects and interrogating them to poke holes in their story, instead of being more receptive,” Chasnoff said.
Demands for police accountability
Many activists saw the board’s true potential as a check against police’s self-investigations into police shootings. The endeavor has been a total failure in that regard.
From 2015 through 2020, there were 53 cases in which a city officer shot someone in the line of duty, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Police killed 27 of those people. Not a single one of those shootings has made it to the Civilian Oversight Board in the nearly five years it’s been up and running.
When a shooting like this happens, the Police Department’s Force Investigation Unit opens an investigation. The civilian board was supposed to review the unit’s investigation once it’s completed. Did the police talk to all the witnesses? Is all of the evidence there?
But right now, the investigations aren’t getting past Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, the city’s top prosecutor and one of the leading criminal justice reform prosecutors in the country.
She can rarely close investigations, she said, because some of the cases she receives from the Police Department are so incomplete.
She says the investigations first need to be moved out of the Police Department and into an investigative unit in her office. At that point, her office would prepare a report for the civilian board and the public.
“Where is it in our criminal justice system that a defendant commits a crime and all his friends, whether they’re well meaning or not, get to investigate whether they’re going to hold them accountable?” Gardner said.
In 2017, she told the Board of Aldermen that members of the Force Investigations Unit had instructed an officer not to speak with her prosecutors about a shooting case. Additionally, one of the unit’s members told prosecutors that he had a “duty” to protect his fellow officers, Gardner said.
Oftentimes when there’s a shooting, Gardner said in an interview, her office gets notified hours after the officer’s union attorney is called.
“The police union lawyer is already on the scene before the Circuit Attorney’s Office,” Gardner said. “That is not appropriate.”
That’s why Gardner has been pushing for legislation to establish an independent investigative unit within her office, to give prosecutors more authority at the crime scenes in these cases. The new unit would take officer-involved shooting investigations completely out of the Police Department.
“The police cannot investigate themselves,” she said.
Taking the reins of power
Gardner first pushed legislation to move investigations out of the Police Department back in 2018, and it’s been strongly supported by the activists who wrote the Civilian Oversight Board bill.
In a hearing, the police union’s attorney, Brian Millikan, warned that an independent investigative unit would have a hard time earning the trust of the police officers or persuading them to give “voluntary statements,” which are crucial in criminal investigations. Officers always volunteered to give statements to the Police Department’s internal unit, he noted.
“For these officers to continue to cooperate in the fashion that they do, they need to trust the system in which they are operating under,” Millikan said. “I understand the public needs to trust the system as well. But it’s not just the public.”
The measure never got past the first round of hearings. The same thing happened to another bill, proposed by Alderwoman Megan Green, aimed at curtailing the Police Department’s use of chemical munitions at protests and establishing protocols for how police should respond to protestors.
The union then ran an aggressive campaign against Green, labeling her a communist. In one Facebook post targeting her, the union declared: “BETTER DEAD THAN RED.” Another alderwoman took it as a death threat.
The union also fought the creation of the Civilian Oversight Board. At a raucous public hearing for the bill, dozens of officers stood in unison to oppose the watchdog measure, calling it “anti-police” legislation.
Officers then refused to provide their voluntary statements to the board once it was created. The union sued to try to prevent the board from having access to the statements officers gave to Internal Affairs investigators, but ultimately lost the suit.
Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said the union is unfairly accused of being anti-reform and of protecting bad officers.
“The purpose of the police union is to advocate for all its members,” he said. “Our mission statement for years was to obtain a union contract, collective bargaining rights and due process rights. That’s always been kind of our focus.”
Meanwhile, he couldn’t recall a single instance when the union has publicly denounced a police officer for misconduct.
Terry Kennedy is the longtime aldermen who championed the civilian oversight bill and led the Black Aldermanic Caucus for many years. He grew up hearing stories about his enslaved great-grandparents — what they did in the struggle to “move the needle” for his generation.
Kennedy has spent his life trying to do the same for this new generation of activists, like Kayla Reed. And he understands that they have to come up with new tactics to meet the moment.
“Racism and white supremacy is adaptable,” Kennedy said. “As opposed to being so overt, it became more institutionalized. So the fight has to change.”
As Reed watched reform after reform die, she began to see where power truly resided and decided she’d been doing it all wrong.
She drew up a whole new plan back in 2016. Reed would build a movement that would become as politically powerful as the police union. Any prosecutor, alderman or mayor who wanted to get elected would need the movement’s endorsement. If they didn’t support reform legislation, they’d have to think about how it would impact her support.
They would take control of the reins of power. They would change policing as we know it. So police stop killing Black people.
“We spend too much money on police,” Reed said, “and it’s not keeping us safe. What does it mean to spend that much money on people? That’s not radical. That’s not revolutionary. That is common sense to me.”
Reveal reporter Trey Bundy contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue, Jason Hancock and Nina Martin. Kenya Vaughn was a contributing editor. It was fact checked by Liz Boyd and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
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