Another futile attempt to understand St. Louis law enforcement

The most amazing thing about the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting wasn’t that it exposed a network of violently corrupt police departments in St. Louis County, or even that it exposed a parallel network of municipal courts that were effectively in the business of kidnapping their constituents for ransom and holding them in uninhabitable dungeons. What’s truly incomprehensible about St. Louis law enforcement, in the dispassionate sense of truly not understanding a thing, is that the response of regional law enforcement has been all over the place. One day, police commanders show true, even unprecedented, leadership; the next, they turn into tinpot dictators or weasels. On exceptionally volatile nights last August these transformations sometimes happened by the hour.

I’m still a bit surprised by my sense that Jon Belmar is the most proactive and responsible member of the Unified Command. If he hadn’t monumentally fucked up his department’s response to the early protests, no one outside North St. Louis County or the Highway Patrol would have heard of Ron Johnson. It was Belmar who botched the local response to the protests so spectacularly that the governor assigned Johnson and Colonel Ron Replogle as incident commanders on an emergency basis to relieve him of duty. Belmar was still hanging around, of course, but he was acting on much more limited authority, effectively demoted to reserve lieutenant under the command of the obscure commanding officer of the local Highway Patrol troop, who in turn was now effectively serving as an acting chief of police. The message was unmistakable: the staties were there to pull Belmar’s nuts out of the fire. The guy looked like a total waste.

So there’s something bizarrely admirable about Belmar’s recently taking cover behind Radley Balko to go on the record with his belief that probably half of the municipal police departments liaising with his agency are illegitimate. He isn’t naming names, publicly, at least, but I can easily imagine him calling every journalist he’s seen on the Ferguson beat to rat out bad municipal police forces and bad individual cops. I’ll be floored if he goes on the record about specific bad actors, especially before he retires, but he sounds like someone who, as long as he can keep his own fingerprints off the project, would gladly give journalists what they need to take down every highway robber and general knucklehead with a badge whose name he recalls.

This is what Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, did when he was third in command of the FBI. The whistle isn’t always blown by some smalltimer like Snowden or Manning. Sometimes it’s blown by bigshots who would like some help cleaning house or just dealing with chronic annoyances at work. Felt was fed up with Nixon and his henchmen. It’s easy to imagine how Belmar could be fed up with the tangle of municipal mafias with which his department is forced to share jurisdiction. He’s forced to liaise with several times more municipal governments than should be the case for a heavily urbanized county of one million. Many of these governments are basically HOA board assholes who came by police forces and courts and let the power go to their heads. They’re operating city halls the size of small funeral homes, with a police dungeon downstairs and another city hall across the street, because that’s already the next city over. Just on account of their small size there’s no way in hell that the police departments in these cities are a net benefit to the St. Louis County Police. They’re operating with sworn staffs that couldn’t field a normal county police squad, and they’re constantly misallocating their manpower to revenue collection instead of keeping an eye out for  serious crime. The courts in these cities are an embarrassing good old boy circle jerk, shot through with egregious conflicts of interest, e.g., lawyers who are simultaneously sitting judges and sitting prosecutors in neighboring cities.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to attract and retain morally grounded civil servants in a regime like this. Jon Belmar must have to work with more than his fair share of bumptious thieves in positions of power, including cops who wouldn’t make sergeant in his department demanding to be treated as colleagues because, well, they’re police chiefs, too. These two-bit chiefs are hardly any more respectable than mall security “officers.” It’s likely that some of them have their jobs because they’re buddies with the mayor. At such a small scale and with so much systemic disenfranchisement on account of apathy, hopelessness, and universal criminality via municipal bench warrant, cronyism is inevitable. No cop who rose through the ranks to make chief at a middling or large agency under a government with genuine appointment standards will be happy to have to humor the head of some village cop shop by honoring his duly commissioned office and duly vested authority. It has to be grating.

These rotten boroughs attract worse than that. Consider St. Ann, population a bit under 13,000. That’s where Ray Albers worked. There can’t have been many cops whose reaction to the point-blank “go fuck yourself” blowup was attaboy, you pwned that little bitch! Two other officers walking nearby dragged Albers away from the journalist he was menacing. That’s how alarmed they were. No cop grabs another cop by the belt without a damn good reason, and that time they had one. He was threatening to blow a man’s head off on live television at the scene of an internationally broadcast protest.

All the support-our-police rhetoric obscures the truth that many, maybe even most, cops, with a wide range of temperaments and policing philosophies, do not want to work with knuckleheads. Ray Albers was a first-class knucklehead. His beef with the journalist erupted in the course of the paranoid (and illegal) insistence by the police that, oh no, we can’t show you our nameplates or give you our names because officer safety. Local police departments persisted in this for some time in defiance of an explicit, direct court order to immediately start wearing name badges again while on patrol. Some of these cops were in a pissing match with everyone. Who will enforce such a ruling against the cops: local court bailiffs? US Marshals? The cops outnumbered the judge ordering them to show their names, so they felt perfectly comfortable with this open fuck-you-pops attitude.

They didn’t all make total disgraces of themselves in so doing, though. One of the Ferguson cops who got into this mess, Sgt. Harry Dilworth, was photographed talking to reporters about this policy in front of city hall. I know his name, or at least his stage name, because he was photographed and identified as Sgt. Harry Dilworth in a New York Times article some months later. Some operational security. In the picture without his nameplate, he looked exceptionally cordial and gracious. The journalists probably went away thinking, dear God, this is one strange cat, but he didn’t give them anything blatant that they could use against him. There was the open illegality of this policy, of course, but a bunch of other cops were pulling that shit, too, and Dilworth wasn’t doing anything else inappropriate. The journalists had dirt on the department, but they didn’t have shit on him.

One can get far in the battle for hearts and minds by not shoving an assault rifle in a reporter’s face. Albers was fired in a matter of days after a bit of foot-dragging by St. Ann officials, because he was just too much of an embarrassment and liability to keep on the force. He was not, however, indicted for the crimes that he committed in front of video cameras and several witnesses. Legally, cops aren’t allowed to shove guns in people’s faces just because they’re pissed off about getting lip. Not that they give a damn about the law; it’s just that they might if they expected it to be enforced against them, too. Like, oh, I could go to jail for doing that, maybe I shouldn’t. Cops expect criminals to execute this thought process and act accordingly, but only non-sworn criminals. Good cops would love for bad cops to discover the fear of God, but it isn’t good cops who call the shots in American police departments these days. Ask Regina Tasca. Ask Adrian Schoolcraft.

Then there’s Dawon Gore. Bob McCulloch didn’t throw his grand jury presentment for assault. I can’t really figure out Gore’s culpability from what I’ve read about that case so far, but if we’re interested in outcomes, Gore didn’t kill anyone. He broke a guy’s hand and then drove him home without charges. He says that the guy got belligerent on Metrolink. There are witnesses backing him up, although Belmar has said that Gore was the aggressor on the CCTV tape. This is what constitutes heinous police violence in St. Louis County: injuring a man’s hand such that he tries to bill the department for his medical expenses a few days later. Shooting a dude is cool, though; Bob will find a crazy lady to write up a cool story about driving to Ferguson on a journey of racial reconciliation if you do that.

There’s probably some kind of creepy shit going on under the surface in the Gore case. It could be that the victim isn’t too dead to testify for a change, but there are much, much worse allegations against Darren Wilson, and not just in the Brown case. Gore has gone on the record describing the St. Louis County Police Department as the most racially troubled organization where he’s ever worked. He may have an ulterior motive for saying so, especially if he caved in to his own anger during the beating, but why on earth are the St. Louis County authorities trying to make an example out of him and not out of Ray Albers or any of the other cops who trained loaded guns on peaceful protesters?

Meanwhile, Sam Dotson appears to be covering for murderers under his command in the Mansur Ball-Bey case. This, too, is bizarre. I long thought that I understood Dotson better than any of the other prominent cops involved in the Ferguson mess. He seemed like something of a kindred spirit. But covering for thugs or homicidal maniacs? I’d understand it if Dotson acted like a thug himself, but he’s usually nothing of the sort. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he’d be willing to cover for subordinates who fatally shot a guy in the back and then dissembled about the circumstances.

It gets even crazier than that. The investigations of the Ball-Bey shooting so far are preliminary, so new details may well emerge indicating that the shooting was justified. What very clearly is unjustifiable is allowing the officer responsible for another notorious line-of-duty shooting to do anti-riot duty at the Ball-Bey protests. That’s crazily inflammatory. There’s something very wrong with this officer, Jason Flanery. Even if he was completely justified in shooting VonDerrit Myers Jr., he should have the good judgment to stay away from protests over subsequent police shootings. This is just common sense. If he is assigned anti-riot duties in such circumstances, he should refuse. It may be a lawful order, but it’s a really fucking stupid one. It looks like either he or his commanders are trying to do everything they can to piss off the locals. Dotson said that there was no basis to restrict Flanery’s duty, but it should be a straightforward command decision to assign him somewhere else.

Shit, send him to the South Side. Have him police Whitey. Dotson’s passing the buck on that one. Cops get moved from district to district and watch to watch all the time. It’s routine. But here’s a white cop who killed a black guy, and the department is at a loss to keep him away from protests against white cops killing black people. No one can figure out how to sit his ass behind a desk for a few hours or send him to the Arch or somewhere wicked south because North St. Louis is about to go up in flames again over violent white cops.

The SLMPD could hardly be any worse off under the command of Stephanie Lazarus. She killed a white chick, like, thirty years ago. It’s bad news, but it didn’t happen last week.

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