On Thursday, March 19 – six weeks before the previously announced retirement of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar – the Board of Police Commissioners announced his replacement. It will not be the county’s first black police chief, as many in the community pushed for (and more than one highly qualified black candidate wanted the job). However, a trail will be blazed: Lieutenant Colonel Mary Barton will become the first woman to serve as the county’s top cop.
Barton has commanded the North County Precinct and was recently assigned to the West County Precinct. She joined the department in October 1978 and has held numerous positions, including patrol (officer and supervisor), Bureau of Drug Enforcement detective, Bureau of Special Investigations detective, Bureau of Communications supervisor, Patrol lieutenant, and bureau commander in Staff Services, Security Services, and Logistical Support.
Barton was praised by another trailblazer: the first person who identifies as “gender queer” to serve on a local police board (or in any other official capacity in Missouri that we know of). Dr. Laurie Punch, a surgeon and community advocate appointed recently by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, said in a statement, “Lieutenant Colonel Barton is an experienced leader with a clear vision of an equitable future for both the department and the community we serve.”
Note the generic term “equitable,” which would encompass not only racial equity – a burning issue with the department for the entirety of its existence – but also gender equity (one would hope Barton could cover that base) and sexual orientation. Sexual orientation has to be a primary issue, given the $20 million awarded by a jury to Sergeant Keith Wildhaber in his discrimination suit.
Wildhaber, who has since been promoted to lieutenant (funny how that worked), was discriminated against in the department for being gay. Belmar, who reportedly was considering retirement before the damning testimony about his leadership in Wildhaber’s trial, had little choice but to spend more time with his family after the jury’s decision.
The Wildhaber case makes the new chief’s sexual orientation a relevant issue. A spokesman for the department said that Barton is married to a man.
Relevant to the Wildhaber fiasco, Barton has instructed classes at the County and Municipal Police Academy in Cultural Diversity, Interpersonal Communications, and Workplace Survival. If police leadership and rank-and-file had a better grasp of those subjects, Wildhaber would have been promoted to lieutenant without filing a lawsuit and Belmar’s retirement would have been a little less interesting.
The Ethical Society of Police (E.S.O.P.) – an association of police officers, park rangers, and civilians that advocates for racial and gender equity in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and St. Louis County Police Department – made a lot of noise after the Wildhaber settlement, and for good reason. As previously reported here, E.S.O.P. can cite chapter and verse on many black cops in the county making credible claims of racial discrimination against the department going back several police chiefs. None of them got a $20 million jury award, promotion or satisfaction of sending the chief who presided over their being discriminated against into early retirement.
Note that E.S.O.P. does include “gender equity” in its mission statement (though not sexual orientation, something that should be considered). So, it should be expected to offer some celebration of Barton’s appointment – and it did, saying the association “congratulates Chief Barton on her selection as chief.” Then straight to past grievances and the path forward.
“African-American officers have faced unbelievable challenges with our voices being heard under former Chief Jon Belmar, former County Executive Steve Stenger and the current County Executive Sam Page,” E.S.O.P. stated. “We hope that going forward our members will be heard by Chief Barton. We are more than willing to work with Chief Barton, and we will support efforts with fairness, diversity and inclusion for all officers and citizens.”
It must sting for Page to be included in this list of bad guys with Belmar and Stenger, who is currently a confessed felon and federal inmate in no position to discriminate against anyone. Of course, E.S.O.P. pushed for a qualified black police chief; though “advocates for racial and gender equity,” its emphasis has been on racial equity.
The short list of candidates for Belmar’s successor included two respected black police leaders, Deputy Chief Kenneth Gregory and Lieutenant Colonel Troy Doyle. The sting to Page can be best explained as payback for the police board that he reshaped after the Wildhaber fall-out overlooking two qualified black candidates in replacing Belmar.
Former state Representative Betty L. Thompson sent a statement to The American expressing what many black officials and citizens are thinking.
“While it is an honor to make history by having our first female chief of police, we should consider factors other than gender. Lt. Col. Troy Doyle has faithfully served St. Louis County for close to 30 years. He currently oversees the department's overall operations, the police academy, dispatch services, and the emergency center, along with other duties,” Thompson stated.
“As I consider his character, experience, loyalty, contributions and deep connections to the St. Louis community, it is troubling for me that a man of his stature was not selected. Lt. Col. Troy Doyle is well respected, well liked and the most qualified candidate for the position. As a civil rights leader and advocate who has been on the battlefield for over 50 years, I did not walk, march, protest and picket to see such atrocities happening in my own community. I wonder what the police commission was thinking?"
Thompson is far from alone. A letter calling for Doyle’s appointment was sent to the police board and Page. It was signed by Jennings City Councilman Terry Wilson, Jennings Mayor Yolanda Austin, Jennings City Councilman Gary Johnson, Jennings City Councilman Alan Stitchnote, Hazelwood School Board Director Mark Behlmann, Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones, Bellefontaine Mayor Tommie Pierson Sr., Bellefontaine Alderwoman Alease Dailes, Beverly Hills Mayor Brian Jackson, Rodney Patrick , Linda Schmerber, Earnestine Brown, Steve Pakorny, Jennings School Board President Rev. Harold Austin, LaChrista Wilson, Caira Ann Parker, Hazel Erby, Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy, Moline Acres Mayor Michelle Deshay, Demetrious Johnson, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis President Michael McMillan, Northwoods Alderman Errol Bush, Cornell Young, Pat Washington, Alice Wilson, Shonte Young, Ted Gatlin, Ferguson Alderwoman Ella Jones, Erica Williams, Pinelawn Mayor Terry Epps and former state Representative Sharon Pace.
To be clear, Thompson’s statement lets Page off the hook, which suggests the disgruntled black advocates for Doyle are not looking for the county executive’s blood in this election year. It’s not his appointment to make, technically, but you don’t reshape a police board in short order and then have no influence in the largest decision it can possibly make.
Anyone who understands county politics knows the predicament Page is in with this appointment. The plain fact is that a tremendous amount of deeply entrenched racism remains in St. Louis County, very much including its leadership, despite some remarkable advances, particularly in Page’s position and the County Council. Those racists, with whom Page must deal every day, look at the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and see a black man, Wesley Bell. Those racists will feel a lot more comfortable if they look at the top cop and see anything other than a black person.
But wait, we know what you’re thinking. For as long as there have been county prosecutors and police chiefs – that is, up until Bell’s historic election – there has been a white prosecutor and a white top cop. Why can’t there be both a black prosecutor and a black police chief?
That’s why they call it racism. It’s a highly virulent and deadly virus – very contagious, too. Washing your hands, avoiding your face and social distancing won’t help you with this virus.