St. Louis County leaders express concern about police chief’s denial of racism in department

CLAYTON — A St. Louis County police commissioner and several members of the County Council expressed concern Wednesday about comments from the police chief denying the existence of “systemic racism” in the police department.

Two council members questioned whether the chief, Mary Barton, could effectively lead the department, given her views. Barton was sworn in on April 30 after the retirement of Jon Belmar in the wake of a multimillion-dollar settlement with a gay police sergeant who had been passed up for promotion nearly two dozen times.

On Tuesday, Barton told the County Council that “to say there’s systemic racism in the police department is overly broad and probably not accurate. I think that to a certain degree, people believe what they want to believe. And until we sit down and talk about it and can verify or at least ferret out what it is people are talking about, I think to put a label on it is really unfair and shortsighted. … People not thinking before they speak is a far cry from racism.”Barton’s comments lumped racism into a group of other “insensitive comments and inappropriate behavior that doesn’t have anything to do with racism” that would not be tolerated in the department although she said, “I’m not saying they exist here.”

“Structural racism,” “institutional racism” and “systemic racism” are all terms used to recognize public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations that reinforce racial group inequity. And they are increasingly topics of debate between people trying to expose them and those who deny they are there. For example, the Ferguson Commission in 2014 called for an end to structural racism. President Donald Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, said Wednesday that he doesn’t regard “systemic racism” as a problem in the U.S.

On Wednesday, during a meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, Barton’s statement drew criticism from commissioner Dr. LJ Punch, who told the chief there may be “a lack of shared vision right now when it comes to understanding the issues at hand in the protests, and the way in which the community locally and nationally is perceiving the role of racism … a source of pain and a source of prior hurts and an ongoing need for restoration and transformation. And I haven’t yet witnessed a shared understanding of that community priority.”

Punch added that during the search earlier this year for Belmar’s successor, the board heard from county residents and police employees about how “racism is driving disparate outcomes and disparate experiences. And yesterday, I heard language from people in this room which made me think that we don’t have a shared vision … that systemic racism is present even within this department.”

Barton, in response, told Punch that she believed that people’s experiences with race were driving the protests across the nation, and that there was a racial divide in the department. She said she had put additional staffing in the department’s bureau of professional standards to address complaints that internal complaints weren’t being heard. And, she said, she had set up a meeting with community leaders to hear their concerns. She said it wouldn’t be fair to say nothing was being done.

The department did not make Barton available for questions after Wednesday’s meeting.

The police board on Wednesday also voted 4-1 to approve the formation of a “chief’s committee” to promote coordination between Barton and nonsupervisory personnel departmentwide. The committee includes representatives from different units and precincts — and also the police union. But not an organization that represents minority police officers.

A May 28 memo from Barton to the board said the board had asked her on May 19 whether the committee should include a representative of the Ethical Society of Police, or ESOP, which represents minority police officers. The group, founded in 1972 to fight discrimination in the city police department, has said the county police department is blocking it from operating.

But Barton wrote that because ESOP is not a recognized labor group, “and their participation in the committee may then lead to other groups wanting a seat, at this time I do not find it necessary to include the ESOP on the Chief’s Committee.”

Punch, an associate professor of surgery at Washington University and anti-violence activist who identifies as genderqueer, cast the board’s lone dissenting vote.

Heather Taylor, a St. Louis police sergeant and ESOP’s president, asked why Barton would not want more perspectives on her committee. “It’s a communications committee for the chief that lets everyone know the feelings and concerns of officers and civilians. That’s what you want, a well-rounded perspective. It’s mind-blowing.”

Taylor added, “She speaks of there not being systemic racism, and then she does something that keeps systemic racism going.”

‘Quite troubled’

On Tuesday, Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said via Twitter that she was “quite troubled” by the conversation with Barton.

Clancy said in a text to the Post-Dispatch: “If the Chief can’t acknowledge the racism in the Police Department, then it seems to me she is missing a big piece of what it means to lead in this critical moment, and thus I’m not confident she has all that is required for the job.We’ve heard time and time again from brave officers and community members that racism is a problem in the County PD. I wonder how her comments made them feel?”

But Clancy said, “I also acknowledge that we are all capable of learning and growth.”

In an interview, Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, said Barton’s stance “doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in her leadership. … Leadership has to set the tone. And if the leadership cannot set the tone then we probably have to look at some other remedies, but clearly you can’t expect the rank-and-file to do what leadership is not doing.”

She said Barton “should have an opportunity to make this right.”

And Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, suggested Barton’s view may be subjective because she came up through the department. “I don’t know why she thinks that, because racism clearly exists in the St. Louis County Police Department.”

But Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, said Barton was new to the position and that “when you’re brand new to leadership you begin to see the organization from a new perspective.” He said she needs time to meet with leaders and people in the department “to give her better insight into what’s happening in the police department.”

“Actions speak louder than words, and we need to see what she’s willing to do to investigate allegations and understand her organization better.”

By indicating concern about the language of “people” in the room, Punch may have also been criticizing police board Chairman William “Ray” Price Jr., whose comments on Tuesday did not differentiate racism within the department from that present in society.

Price said Tuesday that “to the extent that this police department is part of the community, (racism) needs to be addressed within this police department, as well, and we will do our very best to do that.”

Punch and Price, a retired state Supreme Court justice, were two of four commissioners appointed by County Executive Sam Page to the five-member board last fall in the wake of the discrimination case.