The St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) is a “labor union” in the same way the Ku Klux Klan is a “fraternal organization.” The description is technically correct as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
The SLPOA, as reporter Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post noted, is “notorious” nationwide for its racist leadership, racist statements by its members, repeated defense of white cops accused of brutalizing black civilians, and representation of officers in a police department that kills civilians at a higher rate than any other major department in the United States.
And yet, when faced with newly elected black St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell – who made police accountability, bail reform, and sentencing changes central to his campaign – holdover prosecutors from the 28-year regime of ousted prosecutor Bob McCulloch voted to “unionize” and picked the SLPOA as their union.
Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in the St. Louis area recognizes what St. Louis County prosecutors are doing. By choosing to be represented by an organization with a skeevy, bigoted reputation, they weren’t just choosing a union. They were stopping just short of spray-painting “ni**er” on the walls of the office Bell will take over on January 1.
But according to the SLPOA’s paid lobbyist, lawyer and hired political gun Jane Dueker, lawyers and investigators in the county prosecutor’s office fear Bell is going to purge their ranks, and so they unionized out of fear. “Every prosecuting attorney’s office employees except two are protected by civil service laws,” Dueker wrote. “When the incoming prosecutor states that he intends to blatantly violate those rules, you have to expect they would protect themselves.”
I was unable to find any statements Wesley Bell had made indicating he intended to ignore civil service laws and purge the office. When pressed on her claim, Dueker wrote, “They are having (transition team) meetings and telling people who all is going to be hired at what positions.”
In response, Bell’s office would only issue a blandly worded statement from the prosecutor-elect: “As a union member, I support and welcome the assistant prosecutors’ right to organize. The choice of the police union raises some questions, though we will work in good faith to minimize any cost to taxpayers or conflicts with the police union that this could represent.”
Like so much else in St. Louis, all of this dances around the central issue, which is race and racial disparities in policing and prosecution. But before we get to the racist reputation of the SLPOA – and the nasty racial divide caused by outgoing prosecutor McCulloch’s gaming the grand jury so no indictment was returned in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by white cop Darren Wilson – let’s look at the SLPOA as a union.
Like most cop unions, the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, but instead belongs to the 103-year old Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police bargaining unit. Interestingly, the FOP has always refused to call itself a union and has always referred to itself as a “fraternal organization,” a choice dating from the early 20th century, when cops were used to break unions.
The last time the SLPOA had anything to do with the rest of organized labor was last July, when the AFL-CIO filed a complaint because Gary Wiegert, ex-SLPOA president, was featured in TV and print ads supporting Missouri’s anti-union “right-to-work” initiative. The SLPOA agreed, mainly because Wiegert, a city police sergeant who was Donald Trump’s campaign coordinator in the First Congressional District, had been kicked out of the union in 2012.
But what the SLPOA lacks as a legitimate labor union it makes up for in fanning racism, and the avatar for that reputation has been its business manager, Jeff Roorda. Roorda inflamed passions after the Michael Brown killing by supporting Darren Wilson. After members of the St. Louis Rams expressed solidarity with Ferguson protestors, Roorda said, “I’d remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their products. It’s cops.”
After gunmen killed five Dallas police officers in 2016, Roorda went on Facebook and linked the murders to Barack Obama, writing all in caps, “THIS BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS, MR. PRESIDENT.” The SLPOA’s official Twitter account then re-tweeted Roorda’s comment, adding, “I do hope you’re happy, @BarackObama.”
As the official bargaining agent for city police, the SLPOA has unquestioningly supported white cops accused of violence against black people, from Jason Stockley’s acquittal of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith and then planting a gun on his corpse, to the four white city officers recently indicted by a federal grand jury for beating a black undercover cop during protests against the Stockley not-guilty bench verdict. The SLPOA has supported all four, not only against the brutality charges, but against charges they conspired to cover up their alleged crimes.
Then, of course, there was the infamous CopTalk online message board, which is supposed to be an online forum for city officers. For years it was littered with comments about “monkeys,” “degenerates,” “sub-humans” and other racist rhetoric about the city’s black population. Organizers of CopTalk made it private and password-protected two years ago, after fallout from officers’ public airing of racist private thoughts about half of the city’s population.
Given all of this, why would lawyers and investigators in the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office pick the SLPOA as their union? Why not the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, since AFSCME already represents other St. Louis County employees? According to lobbyist Dueker, it was because prosecutors were “wanting a bargaining agent who understands law enforcement.”
That may be true. But it’s obvious there was another reason. A black man from Ferguson, whose election campaign was led by activists, will be the new St. Louis County prosecuting attorney in January. And joining the SLPOA was the clearest way for the office’s prosecutors to send him a message.
Outside of burning a cross on his lawn.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.