At town hall , residents urge St. Louis to hire ‘reasonable chief’ who can hold officers accountable
The next police chief of St. Louis needs to reign in a department that has allowed its officers to too quickly use deadly force and frequently mistreat African-Americans, residents said Wednesday night.
St. Louis is preparing to hire someone to replace former Chief Sam Dotson, who retired April 19, the day after Mayor Lyda Krewson was took office. Since then, Larry O’Toole has led the department as interim chief.
About 100 people attended a town hall meeting at the O'Fallon Park Recreation Complex in north St. Louis, convened by members of the Citizens Advisory Committee and representatives of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Alexandria, Virginia. It was sponsored by Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office.
"I don't want a bunch of dumbasses with guns walking around," Tara Tee said.
Yolanda Brown, the 1st Ward Democratic committeewoman, took O’Toole to task for the way police have responded to the protests that have occurred since a judge said Friday that former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley wasn’t guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
She was particularly critical of the “Whose streets? Our streets” chant by police officers after a mass arrest in downtown St. Louis late Sunday.
“It was under his leadership that the things like chanting ‘Whose Streets’ happened,” Brown said. “It should have never happened — and he created the conditions that allowed it.”
People who attended the meeting said they want the next chief to shape policies so officers are held to higher standards. Too often, police officers who have killed black people have not been held accountable, said Kevin Nevels, a military veteran. He said he has been harassed by police.
"If I walk out of here tonight and a police officer shoots me I guarantee he won't be convicted," the 50-year-old said.
Others said the next chief needs to be someone who can make sure whistleblowers in the department do not face retaliation.
The association’s senior program manager, Andrey Pankov, said he has interviewed people around St. Louis for the past two days, asking them what they want in a chief.
“I’ve heard from a lot of groups that are really unhappy with the way the protests are being handled,” said Pankov, who did not specify the complaints.
For much of the meeting, those who spoke were angry, but respectful. But at times, tempers flared.
Some activists, including artist Elizabeth Vega, suddenly projected the livestream of Sunday's arrests, when police closed in around protesters, media and others. Someone then turned off the lights.
After many minutes of people in the audience narrating the video and saying things like, “Oh my God,” people in the room began to shout, “No justice, no peace!" Organizers of the meeting did not interfere.
In the back of the room, members of the audience held signs that read, "End Jim Crow justice" and "Stop police killings."
Teri Powers, who lives in the Dogtown neighborhood, said she is upset about the militarization of police departments across the country, including in St. Louis.
“We want a chief who is reasonable, who understands de-escalation is what pays off in the long run,” said Powers, who said there are police officers in her family. “I don’t want to see tanks, tear gas, bullets — rubber or otherwise.”
Ciera Simril asked members of the panel how deep their investigation would go into the selection of candidates for chief.
“Are you going to look into their background to see if they killed someone before, see how many misconducts they have had on their record?” Simril said. “That’s something I feel like the public should know.”
After the meeting, Simril said she did not feel heard. She said she doesn’t think the panel really listened to the speakers and that the meeting was for just for show.
“I feel like this is just for the Mayor Krewson to say, ‘I went all around the city of St. Louis to make sure residents are heard,’ when in actuality, it’s some crap,” Simril said.
The St. Louis chapter of the NAACP wants the St. Louis circuit attorney's office to institute an independent investigation unit, it said in a statement.
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.