Discipline disparities and racial tension persists in St. Louis Metro Police

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St. Louis ⁠— Five years ago, Muslim police chaplain Adil Imdad complained to a variety of officials about what he considered harassment by a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer that, Imdad believed, was based on his traditional dress and beard.

His calls to police brass went unanswered and his complaints to internal affairs and other police oversight boards were not sustained.

So when Imdad heard that the officer, Michael Niethe, had been included this June in a national database of law enforcement officers whose public Facebook posts displayed apparent bias, cheered violence, or otherwise had the potential to undermine public trust in policing, he was dismayed – both by Niethe’s inclusion in the database and the fact that he was still on the force.

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Photo courtesy of Adil Imdad

St. Louis County Muslim Chaplain Adil Imdad, center, joining the police force.

“I feel as a police chaplain that this man really doesn’t belong on the police department,” said Imdad, who serves in the neighboring St. Louis County Police Department.

Niethe was one of 22 St. Louis city police officers who were named in the Plain View Project. His inclusion was based on profile pictures he posted in 2016 showing support for the Three percenters, a white supremacist-associated movement whose members in 2017 provided armed protection during the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The department declined to make Niethe available for an interview.

In late November, the department fired two officers whose posts promoting white supremacy and using hateful, anti-Muslim language, appeared in the database. Niethe was not one of them.

But while an attorney for the officers confirmed the two firings, the department refuses to discuss the disciplines, whether they were connected to the database, or whether Niethe or any of the other officers have been disciplined for their posts.

The department’s silence on the Facebook posts and whether the officers involved, most of whom appear to be white, have faced any discipline comes as no surprise to some black St. Louis officers who have long described a culture of racism and discrimination within the department.

Plain View Project

Facebook posts included in the Plain View Project by former St. Louis police officers Thomas Mabrey and Ronald Hasty, who were fired in November.

“We’ve been saying these things forever,” said Heather Taylor, a St. Louis city police sergeant and president of the Ethical Society of Police, an association of largely minority officers. “We’ve had so many examples [of discrimination] within our own police department.”

In July 2016, the Ethical Society released a comprehensive report on racism within the department and disparities in discipline, including 42 real-life examples of discipline, which showed white officers being treated with more leniency than their black peers.

Two examples surrounded the department’s investigations into two black officers for allegedly assisting drug dealers. The investigation of one, according to the Ethical Society’s report, was launched after the officer used a fist-bump to greet an individual in a high crime area he patrolled. The officers’ names were leaked to the media as the investigation was pending, and both were placed on forced, unpaid leave. Both officers were eventually given a 28 day suspension, and neither were charged criminally.

Those claims were bolstered in 2017 by a report from the Civil Service Commission, the city body that reviews employee discipline. The report stemmed from the department’s firing of an African American police captain, Ryan Cousins, for behavior the commission found warranted only a written reprimand, while several white officers whose actions appeared to have violated department policy faced less severe punishment, or none at all. In June the city paid Cousins $1.1 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit, and dropped its efforts to overturn the Commission’s decision to reinstate him.

Two other pending lawsuits by black officers also claim the department discriminates in the way it hands out discipline. In one, a police sergeant says she was reprimanded for speaking to the press without permission while white officers who were quoted in news articles faced no such reproach. In the other, Christopher Tanner, a white officer, faced little consequence for shooting off-duty black officer Milton Green, according to Green’s lawsuit.

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In court records, city attorneys have been critical of the Ethical Society’s report, noting that it is based on news reports and hearsay, but a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department declined to discuss the report. Missouri’s open records laws allow all police disciplinary records to be kept hidden, and the department has largely refused to comment on anything discipline-related, so it’s impossible to conduct an independent evaluation of the department’s discipline practices. The department declined to grant Injustice Watch an interview about the disciplinary process with current police commissioner John Hayden and in response to several questions about specific incidents involving department employees reiterated that they do not discuss disciplinary matters.

The department spokeswoman said in a statement that “disciplinary decisions are not based on the race of the officer, but the conduct/incident being investigated.”

But Taylor, the black police sergeant, said the lack of discipline for some officers undermines trust.

“People definitely don’t trust the police,” Taylor said. “When they file complaints they feel like nothing is really happening with them.”

The firing of Captain Cousins

In January 2016, Charles Owens was upstairs in his house in the city’s Baden neighborhood, half asleep, when he heard the sound of his door being kicked in. He was already on high alert: His home had been burglarized earlier in the week, and his son had noticed that someone had tampered with the screen door a few days after that. So, Owens said, he did what he felt he needed to do to protect himself.

He ran downstairs, fired a gun at the intruder, who fled, then called his wife, who summoned the police for help.

When the police arrived, instead of treating Owens like the victim of an attempted burglary, he said they handcuffed him for nearly an hour and treated him like a criminal. Owens, who is black and said he was no stranger to police harassment, watched from his back porch as a huddled group of mostly white police officers twice searched his home without his permission, which he described as a “very strange, unpleasant experience.”

Why, he recalled asking repeatedly, was he handcuffed?

When an African American police captain, Ryan Cousins, finally arrived at the scene, Owens said things shifted quickly. He and his wife explained to Cousins about the current and prior break in.

According to city records, Cousins told another officer to remove Owens’s handcuffs because the police were “not gonna treat [Owens] like a criminal in his own home.”

Cousins, a well-respected 20-year department veteran, later told an internal affairs official that he was frustrated the burglary was not being addressed and that officers were focused only on Owens because they learned he had a prior felony conviction, making it illegal for him to own or fire a gun.

Owens was uncuffed, police returned the gun they had seized to his wife, officers left and the episode seemed to be over.

But Cousins’s ordeal was just beginning to unfold.

According to city records, two officers who had responded to Owens’s home had contacted a department lieutenant, reporting that Cousins had ordered them to lie in official reports about the incident. The move launched an internal investigation.

Days after the burglary, as the internal investigation into Cousins’s behavior began, police brought Owens and his wife into the police station for questioning, much of which, they recalled, revolved around Cousins.

“They thought that we knew the captain, they questioned me, [asking] if I thought he had a relationship with my wife,” Owens, who had never met Cousins before the burglary incident, said.

In early February, an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch broke the news that Cousins was being investigated for accusations that he had twice released individuals suspected of committing felony crimes. Cousins was placed on forced unpaid leave two days later, and remained on leave until June, when he was fired.

Commission finds disproportionate discipline

Cousins, who had a scant disciplinary record during his two decades on the police force, according to a court filing, appealed his termination to the Civil Service Commission. The commission ultimately found Cousins a more believable witness than then-department commissioner Samuel Dotson, and reinstated Cousins to work in September 2017. Cousins had been forced out of his job for nearly a year and a half and hadn’t received a paycheck in nearly 20 months.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

Police Captain Ryan Cousins

In reinstating Cousins, the commission found that the captain had, in fact, instructed officers not to collect the bullet casings and to disregard that shots had been fired. As a result of his “lack of judgement to collect evidence and lack of candor and full truthfulness” during the internal affairs investigation, a written reprimand was warranted, the commission wrote.

At the same time, the Civil Service Commission listed 12 incidents in which the department’s discipline of Cousins, including his forced leave, greatly eclipsed that of white officers accused of serious offenses or departmental violations. Those included an intoxicated white officer who attempted to strike his son with an aluminum baseball bat, a white sergeant who failed to report a domestic assault allegation against a fellow police officer, and a white officer who, while driving intoxicated, crashed into a fire department vehicle. Unlike Cousins, none of those officers were placed on unpaid leave while the incidents were investigated. The officer accused of attempting to strike his son received a written reprimand, and the other two received month-long suspensions.

Another example cited by the commission was the high-profile 2011 shooting of a young black man by white officer Jason Stockley. After a car pursuit in which Stockley was recorded telling his partner, officer Brian Bianchi, that he was going to kill the individual in the car, Stockley shot 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, killing him. (Bianchi was one of the white officers present at Owens’s home after the burglary, court records show).

Stockley was placed on paid administrative leave for eight months while he was investigated for the shooting, then resigned after serving a one-month suspension. Five years after the shooting, prosecutors charged Stockley with murder. He was acquitted in September 2017, leading to days of protests across the city.

The commission also cited a case in which a white officer, George Boggs, was accused of having inappropriate contact with a 10- and 14-year-old girl and was not placed on forced leave during the investigation. According to public records, Boggs was accused of inappropriately smacking the two young girls’ buttocks at a home in 2015. Both girls reported the touching to an adult friend of Boggs’s. Another adult later contacted the police. The department handed down an unspecified suspension.

The officer died earlier this year in a vehicle collision. Boggs had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit, and he had been driving the wrong direction on a Missouri highway.

“Several white officers whose misconduct posed a threat to themselves, to others, and to the worksite were not placed on forced leave and were disciplined less severely,” the Civil Service Commission wrote in their report.

In a court brief appealing the Civil Service Commission’s decision to reinstate Cousins, the city disputed that any of the cases above were similar to the captain’s case, saying that all the instances listed were from officers of a lower rank, were investigated for different conduct, and that the full body of evidence in those cases was not considered.

Shortly before Cousins’ civil lawsuit was settled, the department dropped its appeal of his reinstatement. But a handful of current and former black officers said they don’t expect things to change for black officers in the department.

Heather Taylor said there are officers working coveted positions and districts that have been suspended for using racist slurs, but who keep their jobs even as new grievances roll in.

“It’s like, we keep these people in these positions,” Taylor said. “And that’s the problem.”

Eddie Simmons, a nearly three-decade veteran of the St. Louis city police department and now the chief of police in nearby Pagedale, Mo., said the fact that public officials’ original response to the Plain View Project’s database was to order sensitivity training said a lot about the department’s lack of will to seriously address the underlying problem.

“Go tell the [Ku Klux] Klan that, ‘I think y’all need some sensitivity training,’” Simmons said, calling the response inadequate for the kind of prejudice expressed in the Facebook posts. “This is hate. They hate us. They actually do.”

Terrell Carter, a former black St. Louis City police officer who has written several books on race and policing, said he believed little would change in the department because many white people, who have not had the kinds of negative experiences with police that black community members have had, remain very supportive of police. Carter, now a vice president and chief diversity officer at Greenville University in Illinois, also noted that no one in power would benefit from real change.

“[If] police officers, white police officers do something, everybody huddles together to protect them,” Carter said. “The system huddles together to protect them versus when a black person or black police officer, black whoever does something, the system pushes them out and no longer cares about them.”