After Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner filed her federal civil rights lawsuit last week, claiming the city of St. Louis and its police union were engaged in a racist conspiracy to stop her from doing her job, I thought back to my interview last year with Milton Green.
Green is a police officer. Well, he was an officer. He has since retired after a shooting left him injured and unable to return to work.
To be clear, Green was a special kind of officer.
He was a black officer, which is to say he wasn’t a full-fledged officer in the eyes of many who control the police culture in St. Louis, specifically the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
In the summer of 2017, Green was shot by a white colleague as he responded to a pursuit near his home. The police chief at the time lied about what happened, saying Green was caught in “friendly fire.” No, the investigation would determine: The white cop saw a black man with a gun and shot him.
If he were a white cop, Green is positive things would have turned out differently.
“I wouldn’t have gotten shot,” he told me at the time. “How did he not see my badge in my hand? My gun was pointed down, and the other officers were calm. The detective told them who I was and told them not to shoot.”
Green never returned to full-time work in his department. He believes the department treated him differently after the shooting because of the color of his skin.
“If I was white, I feel like I would have been taken care of,” he said. “That’s how I feel. … The department creates a separation. It makes me feel like less of an officer.”
Green filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city alleging the same constitutional violations cited in Gardner’s suit. His suit is pending.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that late last week, after Gardner filed her suit, the Ethical Society of Police, an organization that represents police officers, most of them black, held a news conference to push back against Mayor Lyda Krewson’s opinion that Gardner’s lawsuit is “meritless.”
“The statement released by the city of St. Louis about the circuit attorney’s lawsuit states it’s ‘meritless’ when we all know there is a long history of racial discrimination in (the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department) that has never been adequately addressed by the city of St. Louis, the (police officers’ union), and leadership in (the police department),” said Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police. Taylor’s organization owes its existence to the history of racial strife in the police department.
“We have repeatedly highlighted the disparities along racial lines with discipline, promotions and job placement,” Taylor said. “Therefore, the circuit attorney stating she has experienced racial bias at the hands of some … officers is far from ‘meritless.’”
This is daily reality for too many people of color in St. Louis. The city often wants to pretend it has advanced to some post-racial status without ever truly facing its original sin.
Here’s how a group of more than 50 pastors put it in an open letter they signed backing Gardner: “Every attack (on her) is an attempt to maintain the St. Louis of Dred Scott, the St. Louis of enslavement, the St. Louis of mass incarceration of black bodies and to widen and sustain the Delmar divide.”
The same federal court that is hearing Green’s and Gardner’s civil rights lawsuits is also dealing with the criminal prosecution of several white city police officers. Months after Green was shot, those officers were accused of viciously beating one of their own, Luther Hall.
Hall had been working undercover during protests following the acquittal of a white police officer in a shooting of a black man.
Hall is a black cop. He’s suing the city, too.
When Hall filed his lawsuit, Krewson didn’t call it “meritless.” In fact, she didn’t really comment.
Now Gardner has filed a lawsuit that recounts many of the same facts as those in Green’s suit, in Hall’s, and in the federal criminal cases filed by the U.S. attorney against white police officers in the city.
Whether Gardner’s attorneys can meet the high bar of proving that the underlying racial strife in the city’s police department and its police union is contributing to her being one of the only prosecutors in decades of recent U.S. history to possibly face special prosecution for alleged ethical violations that occur in too many prosecutor’s offices is a matter for the court to decide.
The numbers are on Gardner’s side. Between 1970 and 2003 there were more than 2,000 cases of prosecutorial misconduct so severe that defendants had their cases overturned by appeals courts. Only one of those cases — just one — led to a prosecutor being disbarred. Gardner is being investigated for alleged misconduct that happened in a case where nobody went to jail.
So when Gardner says in her lawsuit that the city’s history of racial animus in the police department works to “thwart and impede her efforts to establish equal treatment under law for all St. Louis citizens,” the simple public record suggests that is an idea that is not without merit.
But don’t take Gardner’s word for it.
Ask a black police officer.