Luther Hall became one of the few black detectives in St. Louis’s racially divided police department despite having cost the city $865,000 in damages in 2010 when a federal jury found that he had beaten a handcuffed suspect in 2008. Since the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners had ruled Hall had not used excessive force, he was able to rise through the ranks.
On the night of September 17, 2017, Hall was in civilian clothes, on assignment to infiltrate protestors who were filling downtown’s streets. For three days, protests had erupted in the city and nearby suburbs, as demonstrators reacted to a judge’s not guilty verdict in the case of Police Officer Jason Stockley.
Just before Christmas in 2011, Stockley shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith after a high-speed chase that ended when Smith’s car crashed. After years of delays, local prosecutors finally charged Stockley with first-degree murder in 2017, claiming Stockley had planted the gun found in Smith’s car. In the meantime, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit by Smith’s daughter for $900,000.
Because he was charged with premeditated murder, and not manslaughter or second-degree murder, there was always a good chance Stockley would walk free, since the standard of proof for Murder One is so high. Sure enough, a judge found Stockley not guilty, and protests began, one of which involved a rock being tossed through the window of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home.
On the night of September 17, cops with the city’s CDT – Civil Disobedience Team – surrounded protestors downtown then closed in, a practice known as “kettling.” The police, wearing face shields and body armor, carrying batons and chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” began to beat protestors. Among those bloodied were an U.S. Air Force sergeant who just happened to be walking by, a Post-Dispatch reporter, and undercover Detective Luther Hall.
Hall was knocked to the ground. He claims a baton strike to his tailbone herniated a disc in his back. He claims several kicks to the head herniated two discs in his neck, ripped an almost inch-wide hole in his face above his lip that went through to his teeth, and strained and almost tore his jaw muscles. Fifteen months later, Hall still hasn’t returned to work. He has lost 20 pounds because it’s difficult to chew. He still wears a neck brace.
When a federal grand jury last week indicted four white police officers for beating Hall and then covering it up, their indictment revealed text messages that illustrate a systemic problem within a police department known both for using excessive force and being incapable of controlling violent crime.
The texts include lines like “Let’s whoop some ass,” “It’s gonna be fun beating the hell out of these s***heads once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart!” and how they intended to “just f*** people up when they don’t act right.” One text, from indicted Officer Dustin Boone to indicted Officer Randy Hays, offers advice if Hays even should get caught using excessive force: “Just make sure you have a white dude as a witness.”
In a city with a rich racist history like St. Louis, that last text needs no translation. But it does raise a larger question: How much more evidence do we need that, like many other police departments nationwide, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is so tainted with violence, racism, and incompetence that it’s no longer capable of fighting real crime?
The statistics, and the body count, both tell the story of a police department unable or unwilling to tackle violent crime effectively. Based on the number of murders per 100,000 people, St. Louis has the 13th worst murder rate in the world, sandwiched between gang-infested Maceio, Brazil and Culiacan, Mexico, home of the Sinaloa Cartel.
According to a crime database of America’s 55 largest cities kept by the Washington Post, getting away with murder in St. Louis is better than a 50-50 proposition. Over the past 11 years, St. Louis police have only made arrests in 46 percent of murder cases. In seven city neighborhoods, police arrest murder suspects less than one-third of the time. Six of those seven neighborhoods are on the city’s largely black North Side.
While the city police may be ineffective at fighting or controlling violent crime, they are doing a decent job of draining the city’s bank account due to violence. Thanks to some dogged reporting by the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler in 2016, we know that the city settled 44 wrongful death, excessive force, or wrongful imprisonment cases between 2010 and 2016, carrying a $4.7 million price tag. That number will likely go up, as more protestors injured in September 2017 file lawsuits.
Anticipating that, the police unit of the City Counsellor’s Office got a $2 million budget increase for 2019 to cover more court settlements. This came as the city passed a $1 billion budget. The single biggest chunk of that – $137 million – goes to the St. Louis police, a department unable to deal with crime and prone to court settlements for injuries or deaths caused by excessive force.
Then, there’s the issue of racism. City police have two police associations, one mostly black and one mostly white. While the mostly black Ethical Society of Police has long called for systemic reforms in the department to fight racism, the mostly white St. Louis Police Officer’s Association, the recognized bargaining agent, has uniformly defended cops accused of brutality against black St. Louisans.
Which brings us back to the beating Luther Hall suffered. Had he not been an undercover detective, there is a good chance the case against the four white officers would never have made it as far as a federal indictment. Had he been a black protestor, the case would have probably been, at most, an excessive force complaint, and yet another payout by police.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department isn’t alone. Charges of systemic racism and violence have rocked departments from Chicago to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And that’s the problem with policing in this country. None of this is that unusual.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.