When Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole got up to speak at the Dec. 14 public forum – where the community got to meet the six police chief finalists – several members of the crowd stood up and sang Christmas songs with protest lyrics.
And the protests against O’Toole only got more intense as the evening went on.
At one point, activist Elizabeth Vega interrupted O’Toole to yell out, “We asked for him to be fired, and you have him up here potentially getting a promotion. That is the problem. Ask him to leave.”
About half the room stood up and applauded, including some wearing police uniforms.
O’Toole is among the three local candidates, along with Major John Hayden and Captain Mary Edward-Fears. Two are from Texas and one is from Oklahoma. Four are African American.
For the first time since the city regained control over its police department from the state in 2013, the city had the historic opportunity to search outside its own department for a chief.
However based on the scores from interviews and a test, the top ranking candidate is Hayden, a black St. Louis’ native who is a 30-year veteran of the police department commanding the city’s North Patrol Division. He is also the top pick for the Ethical Society of Police, a police organization of majority black officers. Ethical’s board members voted on Dec. 19 to back Hayden as chief.
“It was based off who we believe would stick to being fair and that understands the importance of integrity,” said Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police. “He’s probably punished more officers for doing wrong than any other on our department, justifiably. That is the one thing our community is calling for – accountability.”
Taylor said the organization joins the community in protesting O’Toole as a choice, and one reason is that he hasn’t disciplined officers fairly – including the officers who brutally beat a black undercover cop in September protests, she said.
Although the organization wanted an outside candidate originally, she said, “After all the interviews, he was clearly a better fit. If he doesn’t hold people accountable, then we will hold him accountable.”
O’Toole ranked fourth among the six. However, local candidates received up to six extra points for living and working in the city, as per city law. If you took away these points, O’Toole wouldn’t have made the final six. And Police Chief Patrick Melvin of Port Arthur, Texas would have scored the highest – with second place going to Major Stephen “Max” Geron of Dallas.
Police Chief Keith Humphrey of Norman, Okla. – who scored sixth with residency points included – seemed to be a favorite at the public forum, where all six candidates faced questions about racism, community relations and outside investigations of police conduct at the public forum held at SLU Law Clinic Courtroom.
Ranking second is Edwards-Fears, a black woman who commands evidence management and professional standards for the city’s police department. Edwards-Fears said she’s the youngest of 12 and was born at the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in North city. She thanked the city for giving “someone like me” a chance to vie for the position. Oddly, Edwards-Fears wasn’t present for about 45 minutes of the two-hour forum, and the moderator said he didn’t know where she was. When she arrived, she apologized for being “as late as she was,” but didn’t offer an explanation.
All the candidates were first asked how they would repair the police department’s relationship with the community. Predictably, they all said they would go out and meet with the community. Hayden said he sometimes sets up an office on a neighborhood corner. By working out there, he shows the community that he wants to engage with them.
Melvin, who is also black and has been police chief in Port Arthur since last year, said he would reach out to faith communities as a way to improve relations. In early November, Port Arthur’s police union issued a vote of no confidence against Melvin as chief, stemming from his emergency response after Tropical Storm Harvey.
On Nov. 19, Melvin responded to the union in a letter stating, “Reforming the culture and practices of our police department has been and will be met with resistance and opposition. That is a natural response when the ways of the past are being dismantled and made way for a new day in Port Arthur policing.”
O’Toole said he would repair community relations by first putting out a survey to see what the issues of concern are. He got some snickers when he said, “Any relationship is about trust...and giving people a voice and being heard.”
In his short time as interim chief, a handful of lawsuits have been filed against the department, stemming from incidents when officers ultimately under his command brutally handled nonviolent protestors, members of the media, an undercover officer and even neighbors (one of them a U.S. Air Force officer) out for a walk – then boasted that police “owned the night.” Under his leadership, the department was issued an injunction from a federal judge that basically orders that O’Toole and his officers obey the Constitution, and subsequently the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation.
After the forum, citizens launched a “Anyone but O’Toole” campaign, asking residents to call the mayor and public safety director expressing their opposition.
Humphrey, who has served as chief in Norman since 2011, received a considerable amount of applause when he spoke about his desire to push for “procedural justice.”
“We need to educate the community about what their rights are,” said Humphrey, who applied and was passed over for Kansas City’s police chief this past summer.
Geron, who is white and a 25-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, earned head nods when he said, “You don’t care about what we say until you know we care about you.” His talking points about open transparency and meeting with the “most vocal critics” were well received from the crowd. Geron also said that he did a thesis on 21st Century strategies for policing protests.
All were asked if they would agree to an independent investigation unit, and all said they would. They were asked how they would bring together the Ethical Society of Police, an organization that represents largely black officers, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the bargaining union. All said they would sit the down together with them both.
On the question of dealing with racism, Humphrey, a black chief leading a majority white department, said part of the problem is that police departments don’t address the emotional side of being a police officer.
“We have this perception that officers are hard shelled, they aren’t human but they are,” Humphrey said. “The reason why a lot of officers react and carry on the way they do is because we do not utilize our early intervention programs.”
At that point, community activist Bill Monroe, who was wearing an “Anthony Lamar Smith” T-shirt jumped up and said, “We are concerned about the murder of young black men by white armed police officers, sir. We’re concerned about the Jason Stockleys of the world who gun down black men.”
The crowd applauded.
Humphrey responded that it’s about de-escalation training. “We have to go back and train these officers,” he said, and make sure they are reporting biased behavior.
In closing, Melvin said that he has two sons, one who graduated from Harris-Stowe State University.
“And they look like me,” Melvin said. “I want a community that if they get stopped by police, they will be safe.”
Hayden said that he has “a stellar reputation” and was the commander for the internal affairs department.
“I’m a fair, inclusive individual,” he said.
Geron said that he wants to be the person to bring the community a police department that people can trust and that empowers the people to direct the department on what policies to use.
Edwards-Fears said the department is often deemed as stuck in the 1960s.
“We are sometimes called the South,” she said. “We got to get better. We got to get more progressive. We got to build trust.”
O’Toole started his closing statement with, “I am committed to positive change,” and that was about as much as he was able to get out before he was heckled and booed off the microphone.
On Friday, the finalists were interviewed by Mayor Lyda Krewson and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, along with representatives from the police union and Ethical Society of Police.
When asked who the police union would be supporting, the union spokesman said, "No comment."
Krewson and Edwards will make the final decision before the end of the year.