The ‘wanteds’ system must end
Angelo Vidal argues that wanteds are a system devised by police to arrest and detain people without an arrest warrant (Scott Olson/Getty Images).
The painful and tragic reality we face is that it often takes the murder of a Black person on national news for people to start questioning the function of police.
Take for example the excruciating case of Tyre Nichols, whose name has recently been added to the long list of those we’ll never forget. Just last week, the Memphis City Council passed reforms to limit police authority to conduct traffic stops and several other cities across the U.S. have started doing the same.
This legislative band-aid comes after years of rallying cries that traffic stops don’t make us safer. Data shows that, since 2017, more than 800 people have been killed after being pulled over in the U.S. Moreover, study after study has shown how traffic stops for minor infractions are used to excessively arrest and cage Black people. But it still took a viral video of five officers beating a young man to death for cities to start considering alternatives. Nichols and so many others didn’t have to die.
We can break the cycle if we choose to examine the violence inflicted on our communities every single day – both fatal and non-fatal, physical and mental – and ask ourselves: Why are these systems in place to begin with? What purpose do they serve? Do they actually make us safer?
The wanteds system demands our attention for that very reason. For years, St. Louis police have used this secretive and unaccountable tactic to arrest thousands of mainly Black and Brown people, devastating lives and violating civil rights in the name of “justice.” But if we perform our calculus, it becomes clear that this unlawful practice has always been about police power and social control, not community safety.
Wanteds are a system devised by police to arrest and detain people without an arrest warrant. Police use this practice throughout the St. Louis region and across the state.
To acquire an arrest warrant, the law requires police officers to submit a written application to a neutral judge, who then reviews whether sufficient evidence exists to suspect someone of a crime before issuing the warrant. wanteds, on the other hand, avoid the judicial approval system altogether and are self-authorized by police based on their judgment alone.
This means that the only criterion for a wanted is that an individual officer suspects you have committed a crime (or, perhaps that you witnessed a crime, or even that your vehicle was connected to a crime). If so, they enter your name into a statewide database, indicating to all other law enforcement agencies that you should be arrested if located. Once found, officers hold you in jail for up to 24 hours for questioning. There is no notice that a wanted has been issued against you and no opportunity to challenge it.
The convenience and speed with which officers can detain people on a wanted compared to an actual arrest warrant makes the ploy attractive to officers and ripe with potential for abuse.
In 2015, an investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that wanteds have resulted in “numerous unconstitutional arrests.” Cops interviewed in the investigation admitted to using wanteds “not merely in spite of a lack of probable cause, but because they lack probable cause.”
Wanteds give police unchecked, uncontrolled power, allowing them to act on hunches like vigilantes in a Clint Eastwood film. As we’ve seen, officers believing they’re “above the law” has dangerous consequences.
It should come as no surprise that the ability of an officer to make arrests at will, based on the suspicion alone, exacerbates the already dramatic racial disparities in the “arrest and incarcerate” model we see in St. Louis. Data shows that misconduct when it comes to stops and arrests disproportionately impacts Black people and indicates that this harm stems, in large part, from racial bias, including racial stereotyping.
This translates to people in overpoliced communities being afraid to leave their homes, drive their cars, go to work, visit friends and family, or otherwise conduct their daily lives because they could be arrested and detained by police at any time.
The reality of police ripping you or your loved ones away at any moment can cause serious trauma and jeopardize your income, status of employment, health, relationships, and family. And the numbers are devastating. From 2005 to 2014, law enforcement agencies issued more than two million wanteds in Missouri, according to the State Highway Patrol database. From 2011 to 2016, more than 15,000 wanteds were issued by the St. Louis County Police Department alone.
We’ve known for years that warrants are a critical mechanism in the criminal legal system that drives so much of the contact between police and civilians, particularly in Black communities, where the rates of arrest and incarceration are staggeringly high. We also know that warrants often have fatal consequences in these communities.
Wanteds are no different. They’re warrants in disguise, making them more invisible, unaccountable, and dangerous. It’s truly a testament to the uncompromising strength of racist institutions in our region that the practice has not yet been outlawed, considering the abundant evidence that it is unlawful and unconstitutional.
Since 2016, the organization I work with, ArchCity Defenders, and the Center for Constitutional Rights have fought alongside our clients to end wanteds in the lawsuit Furlow v. Belmar, et al.
In November 2022, the federal Court of Appeals ruled that wanteds are “fraught with risk of violating the Constitution,” but the practice has not stopped and continues to devastate lives to this day. Litigation is ongoing, but there is nothing stopping the County, the City of St. Louis, and all surrounding municipalities from ending wanteds right now.
St. Louis has always been at the frontlines of the fight against racist criminal justice practices, and we’ve served as a model of resilience and possibility. We must continue the work that keeps us safe.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by wanteds and would like to get involved with our litigation and advocacy, give us a call at 314-881-8318 or visit bit.ly/stlwanteds.
The damage done by wanteds cannot be undone, but we can stop it from continuing to upheave more lives, or worse – end them. We don’t have to wait for someone to be killed on a wanted. We can end wanteds now.
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