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St. Louis County Police under fire; changes seem inevitable

In what appears to be a long-fought victory for many community advocates, changes are coming to the group that provides oversight of the St. Louis County Police Department.

Whether or not those changes will be enough to satisfy community advocates is yet to be seen. What was clear at the County Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22, was that emotions were running high.

“Absolutely there is a lot to be done. And that’s dealing with the racist and sexist behavior of your officers in the St. Louis County Police Department,” Zaki Baruti told the council during public participation.

Baruti is a long-time community advocate and the president of the Universal African Peoples Organization. It was not the first time he has called publicly for sweeping changes to the oversight of the police department. And he wasn’t alone, as more than a dozen members of the public took to the podium to call for change.

County Executive Sam Page announced on Sunday, Oct. 20, that changes were coming to the St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners.

County Executive Sam Page answers questions from the media following Tuesday’s County Council meeting. [Photo: Jeff Bricker]

“The current police board and current police chief have served the county faithfully for years,” Page said in a statement. “The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top.” He said change must be “thoughtful and orderly so that the good police services that our county residents receive are not disrupted.”

Not more than 24 hours later, the first domino of change fell as the board’s chairman, Roland Corvington, announced his resignation. Corvington, a retired FBI agent, has served on the board since March 2012.

News of Corvington’s resignation reached the public via a letter to county employees from Page.

“Last week, in a court case, the honesty of police officers and inclusion within the Police Department were called into question,” Page wrote. “We have heard those criticisms, but we won’t dwell on them. We must instead build a culture where all employees know they are valued and respected.”

In a verdict that may have ripple effects through the area for some time to come, a St. Louis County Circuit Court found in favor of County Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber in his claims of discrimination against the department. Wildhaber contended he has been passed over nearly two dozen times for promotion based on his sexuality.

A jury not only sided with Wildhaber, it awarded him $20 million in damages. County officials expressed a wide range of reactions to the verdict and the subsequent shakeup on the Police Board.

It is within Page’s authority to replace members of the board, all of whom are now serving on expired terms.

During his public remarks at the Oct. 22 council meeting, Page made it clear more changes to the board would be imminent. And Chief Jon Belmar could be among those on his way out.

“We will be making some serious changes in the police department … I have been talking with Chief Belmar about his future,” Page said.

Page’s comments did not pacify the angry, standing-room-only crowd that filled the council chambers and took turns speaking during the public participation portion of the meeting. Despite multiple warnings from Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, many speakers did not head warnings to address the council only and not the crowd.  

Warren Williams, a retired St. Louis City Police Officer shares his outrage over the treatment of his wife by the County Police Department. [Source: YouTube/St. Louis Co. Official Channel]

Community advocates and members of the public weren’t there just to protest alleged bias by County Police, they also were demanding specific actions. Baruti and several other speakers called for the firing of a police officer who was involved in a traffic stop this past April.

The incident involved a St. Louis County officer performing a traffic stop on a 63-year-old African American woman. It has been alleged that the officer conducted himself in a hostile and inappropriate manner toward the woman, stopping her without cause and threatening her to where she says she became so afraid she soiled herself. She has also told the council on multiple occasions that the officer in question frisked her forcefully and degraded her humanity during the stop.

Her husband, Warren Williams, is a retired St. Louis City Police officer with over 30 years of law enforcement experience. Warren also happened to have formerly served as the commander of the city’s Internal Affairs Division. On Oct. 22, he took to the podium to express his outrage over the treatment of his wife at the hands of the county officer.

“What he did to my wife on April the second of this year should not have happened to my wife nor any citizen of the state of Missouri less St. Louis County itself,” Williams told the council. “No officer has the right to stop any citizen of the city, county or state for no apparent reason and do what he did to my wife.”   

The county police department conducted an internal review of the allegations earlier this year and disciplinary action was taken against the officer in question. However, the department has not revealed details on the action taken and the officer is still employed by the county.

“The allegations by that citizen were brought to the attention of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Bureau of Professional Standards in April 2019, and they conducted a thorough and impartial investigation into the matter. That investigation revealed that the complaint was sustained, and discipline was rendered to the officer accordingly,” a spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department said in response to a reporter’s question.

Whether or not the incident from April is reflective of a wider problem between the department and the public, especially members of the African American community, could be subject to debate. But both Page and the Board of Police of Commissioners appear to acknowledge that the problems are real, and change must be forthcoming.

An unidentified woman decries the St Louis County Council for a lack of action despite repeated complaints about County Police (Photo: Jeff Bricker)

In meeting with the media after the council meeting, Page discussed the decision made at an emergency session of the board earlier that afternoon. The session was largely held behind closed doors away from public scrutiny and press coverage. The board announced later that they were recommending an independent entity be contracted to perform a review of the police department. The cost of such a review was not immediately known but Page told reporters he welcomed the recommendation. He said the board’s expectation would be for the review to be completed in 90 days.

When asked about the future of Police Chief Jon Belmar, Page refused to speculate or reveal any details of recent discussions between the two men. A spokesperson for the department also gave no comment or reaction from Belmar on either changes to the board or his future.

Council member Mark Harder [R-District 7] didn’t say whether he thought Belmar should be relieved of his command or not, but he did point out the issue was one that new board members would have to address.

“I guess that will be that will be their first order of business to decide if Chief Belmar is staying,” Harder said after the meeting.

Page told West Newsmagazine he will continue the process to nominate new board members even while an outside study of the department is underway. All nominees presented by Page for the board must come to the full council for confirmation.

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