Michael Brown redux

This time it’s worse. Barely a year after the Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell shootings, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police shot a man from behind and severed his spine, then lied about it in their reports. They perjuriously attested that Mansur Ball-Bey had been facing them, armed and belligerent at close range, that kind of thing. The medical examiner disagreed: the body’s wounds clearly showed that Ball-Bey had been shot from behind. It now appears that the medical examiner may be speculating about the cause of the decedent’s severed spine, that the shooting may not have been as life-threatening and unjustified as he first determined, that the severing may have been spontaneous. There are obvious motives for the police to bully the ME into changing his findings for political reasons, and Ball-Bey’s survivors know it full well. They’ve hired Cyril Wecht to do an independent pathology workup.

Michael Brown’s family has been there, too; I recall their hiring Michael Baden in a futile effort to hold the St. Louis County authorities accountable. Then Bob McCulloch threw the grand jury presentment. Darren Wilson was not dead to rights in the Brown shooting; no one but Wilson himself and the witnesses will ever know for sure whether it was justified, or if so, how justified; but any agency behaving as incompetently as the Ferguson and St. Louis County Police Departments did on the afternoon of the shooting (crime scene investigator running out of batteries and deciding not to take any more pictures because buying new ones would be hard or something) or as corruptly as the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office did under McCulloch should immediately be dissolved or placed under the direct supervision of an impartial independent agency. To hell with local control. Circumstances like these demand state takeovers, if not federalization. They demand the summary revocation of municipal and county charters. Local control can be restored incrementally at such a time as the superior government determines that the locals won’t go right back to screwing the pooch.

St. Louis City looked relatively immune to this sickness. It seemed to have one of the better police departments in the region. At the very least it was never sliced and diced into a patchwork of obviously rotten boroughs. Bellefontaine Neighbors? How the fuck is that a municipality? It doesn’t even have particularly impressive acreage for a housing development. The city at least avoided the county’s incorporation of homeowners’ associations as local mafiosi with the full color and force of law. That portion of violent public corruption it mercifully dodged. And Sam Dotson seemed all right. Mostly, anyway. He didn’t provoke street brawls like Tom Jackson did or allow paramilitary goon squads to point loaded rifles at protesters like Jon Belmar did.

No more. After the shooting of Mansur Ball-Bey, his cops turned floodlights on journalists who were trying to cover the protests. Dotson is responsible for this. The buck stops with him. He held things together miraculously well after the Kajieme Powell shooting. This time he’s fucking up. Of course, his officers fucked up a lot worse this time, too. The Powell shooting was tragic and might have been avoided by less aggressive, savvier cops, but Powell was swinging a knife around in front of a small crowd. He wasn’t just endangering cops. The responding officers might have had some other innocent bystander’s blood on their hands if he had changed course and lunged at someone else. They had no idea what he might do. All they knew was that he was obviously disturbed and brandishing a knife, trying to commit suicide by cop. A savvier cop might have talked him down, and a savvier squad might have figured out how to tackle him from behind and take him to a psych ward with nothing worse than abrasions, but two beat cops were forced to confront a knife-wielding crazy who had been scaring people at a convenience store. The shooting was justified enough. Ball-Bey is a different story entirely. The cops shot a guy in the back and then lied about shooting him from the front in self-defense, and now Sam Dotson is letting his cops freeze out reporters with floodlights and roadblocks.

There have been proposals to apply a version of Indianapolis’ Unigov municipal streamlining to St. Louis County, but would it really do any good? St. Louis Metro just one-upped Ferguson. The trouble goes deeper than the rotten borough structure. There seems to be a regional civic failure. Brad Hicks wrote about this from time to time years before the Brown shooting. An alert, engaged citizenry might have prevented the incorporation of St. Louis County’s bullshit postage-stamp townships, and the newly vigilant citizens of St. Louis County are finally pushing back in earnest against their own governments, but what about the City? What can be done about a jurisdiction of several hundred thousand residents who can’t get straight answers out of city hall and their police force? The City of St. Louis isn’t a baroque patchwork of shell governments incorporated for the purpose of highway robbery and neighborhood mob extortion. It’s big and unified enough that it should be functional.

One thing that both city and county governments need to do is to bring in police chiefs from outside. The local boys keep fucking up: Dotson, Johnson, Belmar, Jackson in extremis. Kathleen O’Toole or Bill Bratton would be strong reformist candidates, and John Timoney probably wouldn’t be bad. Ronal Serpas would be excellent, and he’s taken out-of-state commissions before. In fact, he’s probably up to the task as much as anyone in the United States: he’s taken on a hornet’s nest of who-dat old boys in Nola, his own hometown, so it’s hard to imagine him ending up beholden to shitheads running HOA mob racket around St. Louis. Every local police department in the city and the county has to clean house. It’s time to pension out every sitting chief. There’s no need to blacklist these guys out of the business, but there’s an urgent need to break up the rottenly crooked command structures. They’re getting people killed.

Honestly, the St. Louis area is the worst place in the country for Jon Belmar and Sam Dotson to try to run police departments. They can’t make impartial, appropriate command decisions. They’re local boys done good who are beholden to all the wrong scumbags. I doubt they’d be so disgracefully derelict of their duties anywhere else. They seem like decent men, but they’re playing a game that they can’t win honorably, and they aren’t honorable enough to stand up to the thugs at the risk of setbacks to their careers.

Disturbingly, things are even worse in East St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the river. The police department isn’t notorious for official corruption, but the city itself is a decades-old disaster zone, one of the worst in the country. It’s the Midwest’s answer to Camden. Suburban Philadelphia, for its part, has patchworks of bogus-looking tinpot municipalities in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. One of the most glaring is Millbourne, which is barely big enough for its El stop. I know little about the particulars of the smaller municipal governments around Philadelphia, but I do know that many of them have heavily black constituencies and are broadly troubled socioeconomically. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a number of local governments in the area get exposed as rotten boroughs if the wrong cop shoots the wrong civvy. Philly has had hot summers before, and it’s had police wilding.

We’ll have an RCMP of our own in place to take over rotten local police departments whenever we stop being equally rotten ourselves. Until then, we’ll have Sam Dotson and Jon Belmar walking around with their thumbs up their asses because that’s what we deserve as a citizenry.

Sam? Jon? Ron? You guys wanna prove me wrong for a change?

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