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Officers' Group Seeks More Diverse St. Louis County Police

A police association that focuses on adding diversity and fighting discrimination is trying to gain a foothold within the St. Louis County Police Department, but its leaders claim the police chief is blocking its path.

The Fraternal Order of Police is the collective bargaining unit for 860 rank-and-file officers in the county that surrounds St. Louis city. In April, several black officers citing concerns about lack of diversity and racial tension asked the mostly-black city-based Ethical Society of Police to expand into the county as an alternative association. Since then, 54 black county officers have joined, along with 10 white officers.

Police Chief Jon Belmar refuses to sign a memorandum formally recognizing their association on the grounds that the Fraternal Order of Police has exclusive collective bargaining rights.

Ethical Society leaders say they don't want to be a bargaining unit — their goal is to promote diversity and represent members in disciplinary and personnel hearings. President Heather Taylor believes the group's more activist nature is behind the chief's refusal.

"We're known for connecting with the community, for bringing our community and officers together for basic causes," Taylor, who also is a St. Louis city homicide detective, said. "And we are about accountability. We're never going to sugarcoat when we believe something is wrong within our police.

"Our vocal voice is why he (Belmar) doesn't want us there," Taylor said.

Belmar, through a spokesman, declined comment. But at a county council meeting on Tuesday, Fraternal Order of Police representative Jane Dueker said the Ethical Society's proposed memorandum of understanding included ambiguous language that could be interpreted as seeking collective bargaining rights.

In a letter earlier this month, Belmar cited "great strides" in recruitment and said more minority officers have been promoted to higher ranks, from sergeants up through command staff.

Still, Ethical Society leaders say Belmar's refusal to sign the memorandum is another setback for a region whose racial scars were torn open after the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.

Brown, who was black and unarmed, was killed in a street confrontation with white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice both declined to prosecute Wilson, who later resigned.

But the shooting led to months of protests and scrutiny over treatment of blacks by St. Louis-area police agencies and courts.

More than a dozen supporters of the Ethical Society spoke at the county council meeting. The council's two black members both pledged hearings on the issue.

"We could have zero tolerance for racism if we really wanted to," council member Hazel Erby said.

The Ethical Society formed in 1972 in St. Louis city, where 367 of the roughly 1,200 officers are black. The Ethical Society represents 240 black city officers, said the Rev. Darryl Gray, its community liaison.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association represents around 1,100 city officers, its business manager, Jeff Roorda,said. Some officers are members of both organizations.

In the county, 808 of the 934 officers are white. Ninety-nine are black — less than 11 percent. African-Americans make up about 30 percent of county residents.

Racial tension within the county department escalated in September when a black female officer resigned, citing concerns about what she saw as a culture of bias against blacks and women.

"Actually it's a damn shame that we have to constantly in 2018 be dealing with racial issues," community activist Zaki Baruti told the council.

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