St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed both announced commitments to address police de-escalation tactics — commitments that community leaders and activists called “P.R. stunts.”
“What Lyda and Lewis are doing is giving you Tylenol for the headache — they’re not addressing the virus,” said Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis. “We have to stop thinking that because we treat one symptom, that we’ve eradicated the virus.”
On June 8, Lewis Reed announced on Twitter that he filed legislation (Board Bill 63) to update the police department’s use of force policy, including banning chokeholds.
The same day, Krewson announced she had “proudly signed” a mayoral pledge through the Obama Foundation to review the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s use of force, with support from Police Chief John Hayden. She committed to engaging the community in conversations, reporting the findings and then implementing reforms based on the findings.
However, this is exactly what the St. Louis community did during the Ferguson Commission process between November 2014 and September 2015 — when17 meetings were held and nearly 2,000 people participated, said Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, who co-chaired the Ferguson Commission. During Krewson’s mayoral campaign, she was repeatedly asked how she would implement the commission’s nearly 200 calls to action, he said.
“She has since received two reports on how the city was doing on those initiatives since she has sat in the office — and she fails to act on what she already knows,” Wilson said. “We have no reason to believe that President Obama or the Obama Foundation will change her years of inaction.”
One of those reports came from Forward Through Ferguson, he said, and the other came from the city itself. The City of St. Louis partnered with Forward Through Ferguson and the United Way to publish the Equity Indicators Baseline Report in January 2019.
“It grades the city on how it measures up to the Ferguson Commission’s findings,” Wilson said. “The city is failing in all categories – on its own report.”
Residents also made their voices heard during the extensive police chief search in 2017, which included multiple community forums.
“Voters are not buying it,” Wilson said.
The St. Louis American reached Krewson’s office and is awaiting a response.
Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), said the actions of the two elected officials are just “P.R. stunts,” while black and brown people are dying.
“The idea that both of them would be presenting this on the same day — it’s sickening to watch them,” Taylor said. “They don’t get it.”
In Reed’s bill, he proposes to ban chokeholds, require de-escalation tactics, create a “duty to intervene” policy and require reporting when a weapon is drawn, not just discharged.
Taylor said that chokeholds have been banned for over a decade, and de-escalation training is already required. Tom Shepard, Reed’s chief of staff, said the bill is a just placeholder, and the final form will make chokeholds against the law for police officers — though it does not include this wording in its current form.
“A law is much stronger than any policy,” Shepard said.
Taylor rattled off a lengthy list of changes that she said would be more effective than the commitments Reed and Krewson put forth. She said they could address qualified immunity for police officers which lets them “get away with murder,” make police records more transparent and available to the public, address racial profiling, and refuse to negotiation with the police union business manager Jeff Roorda.
She also suggested holding de-escalation training before officers are hired to see how they respond — because it’s hard to fire bad officers once they are employed.
Taylor said that she agrees with some of the ideas behind “defunding the police” — which are ultimately the same ideas stated in the Ferguson Commission report, Wilson said.
Taylor said there are several organizations that work in conflict resolution, including things like resolving conflicts between tenants. Instead of sending police, these conflicts could be solved through mediators. Cure Violence, an initiative that works in de-escalating potential gun violence conflicts, should have 10 sites in hot spots, Taylor said.
“We don’t see cities pushing them to the forefront,” she said, referring to de-escalation programs. “They are too busy trying to push airport privatization.”
Reed “championed” the Cure Violence initiative, Shepard said. (Two community groups paid the initial costs to bring Cure Violence representatives to the city, and Reed has pushed the effort legislatively.)
Activist and advocacy organizations recently put forth five immediate demands: defund the police, close the Workhouse (Medium Security Institution), fire officers with past instances of excessive force, free political prisoners, and make reparations for North St. Louis which has experienced decades of disinvestment. Kayla Reed said more specific actions and proposed legislation are forthcoming.
Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green (D- Ward 15) said that Lewis Reed and Krewson make up two of the three votes on the Board of Estimate and Apportionment — which ultimately would need to approve re-allocating police department funds.
The other vote comes from Comptroller Darlene Green. The comptroller has been strongly in support of closing the Workhouse, the city jail that has been sharply criticized for alleged inhumane conditions. This is a demand that the Board of E&A could approve immediately, said Ellyia Green.
“We could have this closed,” Ellyia Green said. “There are 100 people currently in the Workhouse, and we still have $8 million allocated to keep it open. It’s asinine, when this money could be used for so many things that support people.”
As of June 9, there were 100 people confined in the Workhouse, and 659 in the St. Louis Justice Center. The capacity for the Justice Center is 860. Ellyia Green said even with COVID-19 precautions, those 100 people could move to the Justice Center and the Workhouse could close. But it depends on the “political courage” of Lewis Reed and Krewson, she said.
Shepard said Lewis Reed is taking cues from the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which is looking into closing the Workhouse.
“We should reduce the amount of our prison population as much as we can while maintaining the safety of our citizens,” Shepard said.
He added that residents sitting in jail for minor, non-violent offenses takes a negative toll on the community as a whole.
Overall, advocates said the conversations Lewis Reed and Krewson are wanting to have are outdated.
“Much of the energy that has led to the national conversation about divesting from one form of public safety and investing in another — that we now hear about as ‘defund the police’ — a good deal of that energy started nearly six years ago, here in this community,” Wilson said.
“It’s a shame that the politicians here are still trying to catch up on a reform conversation — when the rest of the nation has moved to a defund, demilitarized and abolitionist conversation.”