“We have small bits of violence problems, but I don’t trust calling the police,” an older, white-haired white man said to a panel of police officers on Tuesday, October 18 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in South St. Louis. “I don’t trust that, in our neighborhood, they won’t blow it up into a monstrous problem. What do I do?”
He spoke during a community forum on solutions to inclusion within the St. Louis police and fire departments. The event – which was attended by a couple dozen civilians, firefighters and police officers – was hosted by The Ethical Society of Police (ESOP) and Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality (FIRE).
Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of ESOP, said the goal of the forum was to get solutions from the community because that’s “absolutely necessary” to spark change within the police department.
“So many things need to change,” Taylor told The American. “We have officers losing $600,000 lawsuits – it’s an ugly stain on our department. Until we address it and deal with it properly, we are never going to have the community’s trust.”
Earlier this month, two of four St. Louis police officers lost a lawsuit in which they were accused of beating a 39-old-man in 2013 because he was black. A federal court ordered the two officers to pay $600,000 to the plaintiff. All four officers involved in the lawsuit still work for the department.
In December, former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Flanery – who fatally shot black teenager VonDerrit Myers Jr. – resigned after cocaine and alcohol were found in his system following a police vehicle accident from which he fled.
Last September, a jury decided St. Louis Police Officer James Zwilling lied about a black teenage male pointing a gun at him.
Taylor said it’s a concern for some officers to report injustices they witness within the department because it can be “a lonely road” once reported.
“When officers do speak up, we need the support of the community because we feel isolated at times,” Taylor said.
Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer who moderated the forum, said he is concerned about officers not getting disciplined for their biased actions.
“I don’t think anybody in this room is anti-police, but the moment you call for some actual accountability, you get too many officers pointing the finger at you, saying you’re ‘anti-law enforcement’ and ‘pro-criminal’ and all other kinds of nonsense,” Hudson said. “But without any real accountability, all policy is meaningless.”
FIRE is engaged in a lawsuit against the city that claims that black firefighters were racially discriminated against with a 2013 promotional examine test. Percy Green III, a St. Louis firefighter and member of FIRE, said that testing for promotions has had adverse impact on black firefighters.
“Obviously, something is going on to the detriment of black firefighters,” Green said. “These are decent-paying jobs that allow you to take care of your family. We’re asking for opportunity and fairness in these jobs – we’re not getting that.”
FIRE encouraged community members to reach out to Mayor Francis Slay and Public Safety Director Richard Gray about the firefighter tests.
Police mental health crisis intervention was also cited as a solution for direct police response. Behavioral Health Response (BHR) is a resource provided by taxpayers dollars and funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health to help intervene, especially when police are called to help with mental crises.
Dan Gladden, business development representative from BHR, described the program as a “mental health safety net.”
“If you have to ask yourself, ‘Should I call?’ then the answer is ‘yes,’” Gladden said.
Annie Rice, 8th ward Democratic committeewoman, stressed the importance of forum. “To have the police, firefighters and even mental health professionals all here in the same room – this is so important,” Rice told The American. “This should be our biggest issue going forward in all of our races going forward.”
If you or someone you know is dealing with a mental illness crisis and afraid to call the police directly, you can contact Behavioral Health Response at any time: 314-469-6644, 1-800-811-4760 or 314-469-3638.
St. Louis American ©October 2016