LJ Punch

LJ Punch, MD, is a trauma surgeon, community advocate and St. Louis County Commissioner. Punch sent this letter to St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton on July 28. The St. Louis American is publishing the letter in its entirety.

I am extremely concerned for the community. I am not sure you have embraced the depth of pain the community is experiencing right now around racial injustice. I do not believe you have recognized the impact of your statement in front of the county council nor the impact of the ongoing inaction in areas of racial equity. I am writing to you with this list of right now real changes that can be put into place to bring the department forward. I have worked on this document for over three weeks. I will likely be releasing this publicly. There must be immediate action in these areas of concern. 

This section includes a set of recommendations for immediate action within the county police department. They are not perfect nor exhaustive. They reflect my consultation and engagement with the Ferguson Commission, Department of Justice report, Homegrown STL and the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission (STLVPC) as well as the Ethical Society of Police. 

1 – TRAINING: There is an immediate need to properly populate the Board of Managers charged with the County and Municipal Police Academy and all its practices with transparency and accountability. This includes a fully seated board, minutes, reporting and oversight. This also includes restructuring of the recruitment process to allow for a more equitable experience. While 1/3 of the recruits are black, only 10% remain. This process has a number of opportunities for improvement already identified and in need of enactment. This is to include an increase in procedural justice training, a practice which is more likely to reduce racial disparities in policing than implicit bias training. Funding for this training must be immediately re-evaluated and appropriated to support equity focused training within the academy. 

2 – DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION: A civilian expert in diversity, equity and inclusion work should be added to the team. Racial identity or status as a sexual/gender minority does not confer competence. This work requires a measured and expert approach as the issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. There is already a budget item allocated for an HR Assistant which could fund this position. Transparency in the action to place the unit in the HR department should include appropriate scope of actions, clearances and authority to impact the multiple areas within the police career where racism has a negative impact, including recruitment, training, promotion and discipline. 

- There should be a clearly defined disciplinary matrix with evaluations and actions noted in a publicly accessible document - There should be transparency in reporting officer use of force, arrests and any patterns which are disparate. 

The STLVPC statement on policing and violence prevention includes specific concerns around the experience of LGBTQIA persons in interactions with the police. Their wide-sweeping and comprehensive set of recommendations include the creation of a task force to support the experiences of the LGBTQIA community with policing. 

3 – TRANSPARENCY: The board meetings and minutes should be posted to an easily accessible webpage and not via request for records as is stated in the policy. This webpage should include postings on crime statistics and arrests as are reported to the board and should occur in monthly updates. This should also include a publicly accessible use of force database, in alignment with the recent report by Homegrown STL. The Board should review its Mission Statement last updated in 1992 to include explicit language on the issue of community and equity. 

4 – EVALUATION: A current plan for a repeat audit by the Center For Policing Equity should be carried out to allow for retrospective comparison of the environment within the police department. This should include an evaluation of transfers within the department, promotions and attrition. This work can be engaged immediately, at no cost. (Oddly, I was informed that the opportunity to complete this study no longer existed on the same day the Public Safety review was announced.) 

5 – USE OF FORCE: Rather than simply reviewing the policy, we must allow explicit sharing of the statistics regarding the department’s use of force, reported by race and gender and location and disaggregated. This would allow a review of how the practice and behavior of policing is impacting the region. 

It has been stated that the #8CANTWAIT guidelines have already been embraced by the St. Louis County Police Department which are as below. I share here those guidelines and move through the language of the use of force policy identifying opportunities for growth and clarification. I am not a lawyer. I speak the truth as best as I can. This is precisely the kind of work that any additional funds could be used to do. This deep careful work, focusing on language and working with officers and leadership to understand culture takes time and human resources. There is inadequate support, regulation and expertise in the department to do this kind of work without undue bias. 

The #8CANTWAIT campaign has especially gotten a lot of attention online. It calls for police departments to immediately make the following changes: 

1. Ban chokeholds and strangleholds. 2. Require de-escalation. 3. Require warning before shooting. 4. Require exhausting all alternatives before shooting. 5. Duty to intervene. 6. Ban shooting at moving vehicles. 7. Require use of force continuum. 8. Require comprehensive reporting. 

“C. If feasible, a verbal warning shall be given prior to the use of deadly force” 

- The word “IF” is a loophole and should be removed as any action without warning can be allowed due to the presence of this two-letter word. 

“A. Where deadly force is not authorized, officers should assess the incident in order to determine which non-deadly technique or less lethal weapon will best de-escalate the incident and bring it under control in a safe manner. Only the appropriate amount of force necessary to bring an incident under control is authorized. In making an arrest, no more force shall be used than is reasonably necessary for the safe custody of the prisoner or for overcoming any resistance that may be offered and for ensuring the delivery of the prisoner into safekeeping. Officers are not authorized to use chokeholds, neck restraints, shoulder pins or similar weaponless control techniques with a potential for serious injury.” 

- While this does not permit chokeholds it does qualify situations in which deadly force is not authorized as if it is the primary posture and de-escalation is a compromise rather than a primary posture. It does not include decisive language to “exhaust” all efforts before lethal force. 

“B. Individual Employee Responsibility 1. Every employee of this Department has the responsibility to immediately contact the Bureau of Professional Standards or the Department Duty officer and report any act which they believe involves the use of excessive force as described in this Order. 2. Any employee who fails to report physical or verbal abuse against any citizen by another member of this Department is subject to disciplinary action.” 

- The language “believe” and “excessive force” does not align with best practices in requirement of reporting ALL use of force and even threat of use of force. 

“B. Firearms Shall Not be Discharged Under the Following Circumstances 1. As a warning shot; or 2. At or from a moving vehicle, unless the occupant(s) of the vehicle represents a direct and immediate threat to the life or safety of the officer or an innocent person, and then only as a last resort; Officers shall avoid tactics that could place them in a position where a vehicle could be used as a weapon against them (i.e. reaching into the vehicle to turn the car off and secure the keys, approaching the vehicle from the front, etc.). When confronted with an oncoming vehicle, officers shall make every attempt to move out of its path.” 

- This also gives a caveat which allows a firearm to be directed toward a moving vehicle. 

“IX. NONDEADLY USE OF FORCE PROCEDURES A. The precinct watch commander or appropriate bureau commander must be notified immediately whenever an officer uses or attempts to use force under extraordinary circumstances.” 

- Again, this is open to interpretation of the word “extraordinary.” It has been stated twice that this policy has been reviewed since the Department of Justice (DOJ) evaluation, however it is dated without edits from 2010.

6 – PROTESTS: The utilization of tear gas in the setting of protests represents a unique public health concern in the setting of the coronavirus pandemic. The county officers have been directly involved in the use of chemical munitions in the protests in Florissant and no modification to the practice has been created given the current concerns around COVID19. In addition you have not expressed the intention to take action yourself in redirecting this practice which has exposed protest participants to egregious harm. 

Finally, there has been inaction on my requests for: 

1. Completion of Crisis Intervention Training for all officers. Currently only half the force is trained in CIT. 

2. Transparency in reviewing officers with patterns making them most likely to utilize lethal force. 

3. The primary utilization of non-police officers to respond to social and mental health related calls. 

There is an enormous amount of work to do and the department is inadequately staffed and structured to do it. Another evaluation detracts from the work and adds to another list of things that could be, but are not, being done. We must put real action into place rather than participating in meaningless study of what we already know to be true. Our community deserves better. 

I call for immediate actions to be taken in the above said areas to reform the academy, bring equity to the recruiting and hiring process, hire a civilian expert in diversity, equity and inclusion for the department, create a new web interface, engage in a re-evaluation by the CPE if possible, create a community driven initiative for business leaders to contribute to more equitable policing practices including a publicly accessible use of force review, engagement with policy and practice in the LGBTQIA community, the substantial investment into non-police supports for social and mental health emergencies, and for the department, and the creation of a civilian review board.


LJ Punch, MD (they/them)

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