Kim Gardner

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaking on the Arch grounds the day after the primary election during a Black Girl Magic press conference at the Gateway Arch Wed. Aug. 5, 2020. 

As was discovered last week due to Post-Dispatch reporting, a major area employer headquartered here in St. Louis held a meeting to discuss a potential public safety collaboration between the St. Louis city and county police departments. More interesting than the guest list at this meeting was who was not invited. While appointed federal prosecutor Jeff Jensen got on the guest list, locally elected prosecutors Kimberly Gardner and Wesley Bell did not. 

Jensen, appointed by now-lame-duck though in-denial President Donald J. Trump, is white. Gardner and Bell, elected by and for the people of St. Louis city and county, are Black. Just throwing that out there.

Major regional employers and their leadership should be concerned about public safety. It is not clear, however, what this collabo intends to do with any alleged criminals apprehended through this new initiative. Is the idea for Jensen to prosecute all of the crimes? And how will that look, cutting out the locally elected Black prosecutors and having a white Trump appointee take all of these cases? With, let’s project, a majority of Black defendants, given the focus on the North Side. (A majority of Black victims, too.)

The one thing better to do than prosecute a crime ethically is to prevent the crime. That is what police reformers are talking about. Hint: locally elected Black reform prosecutors are your best allies in preventing crime. Not a Trump appointee.

Again, it’s not a bad thing that a major regional employer would want to invest in public safety as a form of public health – given that health issues prevalent in St. Louis include opioid abuse, gun violence and its physical and psychological traumas, and the various health issues associated with housing and food insecurity, the Venn diagram of “public health” and “public safety” here is more or less a circle. But locally elected Black reform prosecutors are the ticket to ride here, not a Trump appointee. Or, God forbid, Missouri Attorney General Eric “the people of Missouri elected me to sue China and Pennsylvania” Schmitt, who is always lurking around the corner when white men contemplate crime in St. Louis. Stay in Jeff City, Eric.

It is a cause for concern, also, that Dr. LJ Punch – who knows a thing or three about public health, community engagement and crime prevention – resigned from their position as a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners as a result of this meeting. Punch, who works in trauma-informed care for some of St. Louis’ most vulnerable populations – Black trans people, who experience sky-high rates of homelessness and violence, in particular – said they resigned out of a refusal to be “complicit” in the “hurt” the secrecy of this meeting caused to Black people in St. Louis. Not to mention the people of conscience of any color who elected Black reform prosecutors.

“I cannot continue in a system where there is no hope for bringing justice and light,” Punch said to the Post, which deserves credit for enterprise reporting on this important story. “That’s why I joined the board: I thought I could be a force for change, but I fear there is no path for me to continue without becoming complicit in the injustice. I don’t want to hurt the people in St. Louis County and I’m very worried that’s exactly what’s happening because of the actions and decisions of this department.”

As Bell, Gardner, and now Punch are for now absent from this round of decision-making about how predominantly Black areas of metro St. Louis will be policed, that leaves other actors to take their place – ones who look less like the communities they are making decisions for, and have less stake in the outcomes of policing there. (Stay in Jeff City, Eric.)

Smearing Courtney Curtis

While the Post-Dispatch reporting on this covert police collabo provided a service to the people – letting even elected officials in Jennings know about the clandestine dealings happening within their own jurisdictions – another Post editorial decision this week did more harm than good. The paper published what was essentially a hearsay report about Courtney Curtis, a former state rep and assistant to County Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, pleading guilty to federal crimes. While Curtis’ actions, once confirmed, were unethical – spending over $40,000 of citizens’ money donated for the purposes of a 2016 campaign on things like hotel rooms and rent bills – so were those of the Post, given that they reported this on hearsay evidence right before an election, which the federal prosecutor would have let pass before announcing a plea agreement with someone in politics.

Also, consider that Curtis would have been unwise to comment to the Post when they called to confirm, given that federal prosecutors hate to see their plea partners talking to anyone but them or a judge.  

“According to the plea agreement, beginning on or about January 1, 2016 and continuing through on or about December 31, 2017, Curtis devised, intended to devise, and knowingly participated in a scheme to defraud and to obtain money from donors to the Curtis for MO campaign committee by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises,” a Nov. 6 press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Missouri stated. That was the confirmation needed to ethically report Curtis’ crimes, to which we now can confirm he has confessed.

As a further insult, when the Post ran with Days’ hearsay about Curtis, it cooked up a bunch of rumors about what Curtis may have pled to, since the only thing Days said was that Curtis had pled guilty to something. The EYE won’t repeat those rumors, but they include things that are not in Curtis’ plea agreement. However, he stands smeared of doing things he didn’t do. Not cool.

N-bomb goes off at police academy

People who do immoral things in St. Louis politics tend to be punished only when it is necessary for the maintenance of the appearance that our justice system is, in fact, just. One example of this phenomenon is the firing of a Police Academy trainer who used racial epithets such as the N-word on the job this past week. As the Ethical Society of Police pointed out in a press release, though, this was mere window-= dressing, and didn’t do much of anything to fix the department’s systemic racism problem. 

“We acknowledge Chief Mary Barton for taking the appropriate action in this situation. Unfortunately, this incident is just one of at least three where derogatory terms have been used where police officers are supposed to receive training in a professional environment. These incidents have been reported in the news over many years,” leadership of the Black officers’ union stated. They also pointed out that this instructor is still licensed to teach in other neighboring departments, and that there is as yet no guarantee from St. Louis County Police that there will be anything done to eliminate this sort of incident in the future.

One instructor has been fired, and the police department can now say they are doing their best – all while continuing to oppress Black people in much more materially relevant ways than the use of a slur in a training session. If officers who use the N-word are fired while other officers with track records of excessive violence against the Black people they are supposed to protect and serve are lauded in the police department, how can this possibly be interpreted as anything other than a half-hearted attempt by Chief Mary Barton and her colleagues to do the bare minimum to appear just while maintaining the status quo? 

These three incidents all follow a major theme of St. Louis politics: we punish only where it keeps up appearances and/or where it keeps those who are already victimized down, as our incarceration rate for Black men and failure to do anything serious to address police racism indicate. But when people like Punch, Bell, or Gardner try to change systems to make sure those punishments don’t even need to be happening, they get shut down and shut out of decision rooms. 

Do better. And stay in Jeff City, Eric. Or maybe move to Pennsylvania. Or China.

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