On Monday, June 22, St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page signed a Memo of Understanding (MOU) with the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), recognizing it as “a local employee association” and granting its members the right to be represented by a lawyer of choice in the event of disciplinary proceedings or an officer-involved shooting.
While Page’s signature is binding, ESOP demanded that the MOU also be signed by St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton and the members of the St. Louis County Council and the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. At press time, only Page had signed.
The MOU represents years of work by ESOP to be recognized independently of the St. Louis County Police Association, which is the bargaining unit for county police. ESOP, which advocates for racial equity in policing, has been critical of both St. Louis County Police Department (SLCPD) leadership and the white-dominated police association, part of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Police Officer Shanette Hall, an ESOP St. Louis County Chapter board member, stated that ESOP was founded “to address race-based discrimination, not only occurring within the police department but within the community as well.”
ESOP’S St. Louis County Chapter has fought to be recognized as an official organization within the SLCPD since the chapter was founded in April 2018. ESOP was founded in the City of St. Louis in 1972.
Hall said that ESOP first presented Page with an MOU over a year ago, but he did not sign until ESOP announced a press conference to discuss their grievances on June 22.
“This fight has lasted 13 months as of today,” Hall said at the press conference. “This is something we were going to do, something we were no longer going to be silent about, and this is when Dr. Page decided to sign the MOU.”
ESOP began working on the MOU in May of 2018 when Steve Stenger was county executive and Jon Belmar was chief of police. Stenger resigned last year and is now in federal prison, having pled guilty to corruption charges. Belmar retired on April 30.
In November of 2018, ESOP asked all regional police officers, in St. Louis city and county, to rescind their Fraternal Order of Police membership until SLCPD and Belmar recognized ESOP as a local association of police officers with a formal agreement.
At the time, ESOP President Heather Taylor stated that Belmar’s refusal to recognize ESOP was unconstitutional.
“On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that it is unconstitutional to force public employees to fund union advocacy as a condition of employment,” Taylor said. “This ruling gives public employees the right to choose whether or not they will join a union and makes favoritism toward the collective bargaining unit unconstitutional.”
ESOP Attorney William Dailey said that the final stumbling block in getting the MOU signed was that someone in Page’s administration was uncomfortable with the phrase “race-based discrimination.”
“Someone was uncomfortable with the idea that in 1972 a group of African-American police officers founded an organization to address race-based discrimination within the St. Louis Police Department and the community,” said Dailey.
Taylor, who is a sergeant in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, made a stand and refused to make any more changes; then, 48 hours later, Page finally signed the MOU.
This past month, Chief Barton advised ESOP leadership that systemic racism did not exist in the department. However, ESOP stated that in the 2015 findings of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, SLCPD lags behind many other police departments nationwide with regard to diversity and inclusion.
“Most of us are proud to wear this uniform,” said Taylor. “But we’re not proud in the moments when we have chiefs of police like Mary Barton saying that she doesn’t recognize racism existing in her police department as she is doing the very thing she is not recognizing.”
A reporter stated that Barton had just emailed a statement, saying she was willing to meet with ESOP.
“As we have seen different things happen in society lately, we have had conversations,” Hall said. “Conversations happened when George Floyd was murdered. Conversations happened when Breonna Taylor was murdered. Conversations happened when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered. Conversations continue to happen. At what point are we going to stop having conversations and actually do something?”
She said that African Americans have been asking for the same thing for years, yet nothing has really changed. While policies have been created, the culture in this country supersedes those policies.
“We will continue to have those conversations,” Hall said. “However, it doesn’t need to stop at those conversations.”
Dailey added that although ESOP is ready and willing to stand behind officers who face racial discrimination, they should not stand alone. Others like the chief of police should be supporting those officers as well.
A reporter asked about the numbers of white officers and Black officers in the department. Taylor said that the number of Black officers has been stagnant for decades and that 60% of African-American officers leave within seven years of serving. African Americans are still applying to be officers, but the systemic racism in the department makes it difficult for them because they have to face different hurdles than someone who is not a minority, she said.
“The root of everything most times comes back to systemic racism — the denial of the existence of us as minorities in police departments,” said Taylor.
Taylor connected Black officers’ struggle for representation in police department to the Black Lives Matter movement’s struggle for police accountability.
“The way that it stands right now, the police officers all over the country, we have to do better,” said Taylor. “We are trying to improve the lives of the people in our community and our police departments, but in order to do that, we must have a voice.”