Tishaura Jones takes her oath of office April 20, becoming the first Black woman lead St. Louis city. (Wiley Price/St. Louis American)
A year ago, a movement of organizers hoping to curb police violence and transform public safety claimed a major victory – helping Tishaura Jones get elected mayor of St. Louis.
In her first week, she signed an executive order to close loopholes in the civilian oversight process of police misconduct investigations and redirected $4 million from the police overtime budget to hire social workers within the police department, increase funds for affordable housing and other proposals critics lump into the idea of “defund the police.”
She hired a team of people who have spent their lives dreaming of an opportunity to put social justice and racial equity at the center of all public policy.
But reality quickly set in.
A group of city aldermen succeeded in using federal COVID relief funds to put $5 million back into the police overtime budget. State lawmakers responded to Jones’ budget by pushing for legislation that would once again give the state control of the city’s police department.
The city’s personnel director left abruptly in December due to illness, which made it even more challenging for Jones to find a new police chief who aligns with her vision. And now the mayor faces a lawsuit from the firefighters union — along with criticism from other public employee unions — who say she doesn’t have the authority to appoint an interim personnel director.
As Jones prepares to deliver her first State of the City address Tuesday night, exactly one year from taking the oath of office as the first Black woman elected St. Louis mayor, she says she remains committed to “reimagining public safety” and efforts to make communities safer beyond policing.
“Some people like to push these racist narratives about Black elected leaders and crime,” Jones told The Independent, “when I’m just fighting to ensure people aren’t getting locked up for being locked out of opportunities.”
Even one of the successes Jones has been most proud to tout — a 25% drop during her first year in office in the city’s stubbornly high homicide rate — has come under scrutiny.
A recent investigation by ProPublica and APM Reports called that progress into question, noting that the murder count was lower in recent years as the killings classified as “justifiable homicides” increased.
However, Jones said a big part of the reason for the drop was her administration’s move away from the “old arrest and incarcerate model” and more towards prevention. That means hiring social workers and clinicians who can handle 911 calls that deal with mental illness and drug addiction.
It also means investing COVID relief funds into programs such as community violence intervention and direct cash assistance, youth activities and job training.
“When I talk about addressing the root causes of crime, I am talking about supporting families and communities that have suffered disinvestment for decades under the failed status quo,” she said. “We know the neighborhoods with the most resources see the least violent crime. That’s why through the American Rescue Plan Act, we’re helping thousands of families put food on the table and pay the bills, and stay in their homes.”
Defending excessive use of force
External pressure isn’t the only thing Jones’ critics say is causing challenges for her public safety agenda.
While Jones vowed to transform the culture of the police department, the woman she appointed to serve as the city’s attorney has doubled down on the intensity in which she defends officers accused of excessive use of force.
Sheena Hamilton is the first Black woman to hold the seat of city counselor, where she leads an office of attorneys responsible for defending the city in lawsuits and making sure proposed legislation is in line with state laws, among other duties.
Jones said Hamilton being the first Black woman to hold the position has drawn “unfair attacks” on her qualifications.”
But much of the criticism Hamilton faces comes from Jones supporters — many of whom are also Black women — who question her the decisions she’s made, not her qualifications for the job.
Two weeks after Hamilton was appointed in September, her office asked a judge to order a Black woman who had won her excessive-force lawsuit against an officer to pay court costs of nearly $60,000. Police officers had tased the Kris Hendrix, a former school board president, three times when arresting her as she was leaving a protest downtown in 2015. The court cost greatly exceeded the $3,500 that a St. Louis jury awarded her in her case.
The counselor’s office cited a little-known state law that says people can be on the hook for court costs in their lawsuits against police officers, even if they win.
“It can feel like a bullying tactic, so that people would not want to come forward to address those grievances,” Hendrix said. “Because that would be a heavy financial lift for working-class families.”
Then in February, the counselor’s office filed an appeal in another excessive force lawsuit – one that advocates say could expand qualified immunity for police officers nationwide. The case involved a man who got swept up in a mass arrest at a 2017 protest, where people were decrying the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith.
A panel of federal appellate judges had found that the officers in the case aren’t protected by qualified immunity, or immunity from lawsuits.
The city’s motion at the appellate level failed, but Hamilton could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — something the plaintiff’s attorney, Javad Khazaeli, said he believes the city will do.
A number of Jones’ supporters gathered in front of City Hall on March 7 to protest the city counselor’s actions in that case.
Jamala Rogers, a longtime criminal justice advocate and a Jones supporter, said she has a lot of concerns about the city’s stance regarding qualified immunity.
“I know the mayor has said that she’s not trying to expand that, but it’s not clear what Sheena Hamilton is trying to do,” said Rogers, chairwoman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression.
Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group Action St. Louis, agreed.
“I wholeheartedly disagree with what the city counselor has been doing in court around these cases,” Reed said. “It contradicts the mayor’s position on this issue. That must not be easy for the administration.”
Jones defended Hamilton, saying she has the “unenviable position of inheriting many lawsuits from the previous administrations, and in many cases is required to defend the city, not to mention her fiduciary duty to the taxpayers as well.”
Changing police culture
Every day, Jones’ public safety director, Daniel Isom, gets on a call with police commanders to see if officers responded to crime scenes with compassion.
If there’s a shooting that occurred inside the home, Isom wants to know if there were young people around. He asks if the department sent a victim advocate and social worker, either to the scene that day or the following day.
If there were St. Louis Public School students present, he wants to know if officers sent a notification through the new “Handle with Care” program, which alerts school officials that students have experienced a traumatic situation.
If it’s a homicide incident, Isom wants to talk about potential retaliation for other victims and how to protect them.
“It might be that we seek resources to find a way to get them out of the situation, whether that’s to a different part of the city, a different part of the state, or even out of the state,” Isom said in an interview Friday. “Those are things that weren’t necessarily happening before but are happening now.”
It’s been a learning process for everyone, he said.
“We’re to the point now that when we’re on these calls, we don’t have to necessarily suggest it anymore,” Isom said. “It’s already reported.”
One other area that is different from previous public safety directors is that Isom supports independent investigations of officer-involved shootings.
Currently when a shooting like that happens, the police department’s force investigation unit opens an investigation.
However, since Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner came into office in 2017, she’s been pushing to establish an independent investigative unit within her office to give prosecutors more authority at the crime scenes in these cases.
“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 has told the Independent previously.
Isom said he’s working with Gardner’s office to make this unit a reality. And he also supports strengthening the powers of the civilian oversight board, a seven-member board that reviews complaints of misconduct and excessive force among law enforcement officers.
“There is legislation that we support to strengthen the (civilian oversight board),” Isom said, “but we also support the circuit attorney having an independent public integrity unit that can also independently investigate use of force incidents by not only law enforcement for all corrections or criminal justice personnel.”
Transforming public safety means more to Jones and her supporters than just changing police culture.
It means bridging the racial divide between the northern and southern halves of St. Louis. Jones grew up in North St. Louis, which is about 90 percent Black and has suffered decades of disinvestment. This inequity is at the heart of the city’s continual protests and high homicide rate.
However, the city has a historic opportunity with the federal COVID relief funding to address this like never before, she said.
“Reversing decades of disinvestment won’t happen overnight,” she said, “but our efforts are already gaining traction.”
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