ST. LOUIS – Following the Friday verdict that found Jason Stockley acquitted for murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, protests in St. Louis have led to more than 80 arrests, over 30 officers injured from projectiles, but above all increasingly strained relations between black Missourians and law enforcement. Activists for black lives have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and heavily defended law enforcement. At the same time, Missouri police have been met by bricks, accusations of bigotry, and vandals breaking public and private property.
Jeff Roorda, Executive Director of the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA), says that officer’s rights have been diminished since 2014 and blames lawmakers in Jefferson City. He believes that legal changes since the Ferguson protests forced police officers to play “defense instead of offense… and spend a lot of time and political capital.”
“There’s been legislation to diminish police officer’s rights when it comes to due process, to try change how grand juries work, and to try and change the way evidence comes in against police officers,” he said. He fears the legislature might try to reduce the legal rights of police officers’ by not allowing them to have bench trials.
He mentioned that he has seen states pass police reform legislation, which he feels was done without the consideration of police officers. Making Missouri a right-to-work state has made it difficult for law enforcement to advocate for their needs, he said.
However, he still believes lawmakers share a large part of the blame.
“The fact that politicians, activist groups, and elected officials continue to mischaracterize what happened in these police encounters is what has caused this civil disobedience. The honest answer is that people are trying to kill and injure police officers… If you want police reform, include police in the conversation… We’ll tell you what we need to do our job better.”
“I would call that contention absurd,” Democrat Rep. Peter Merideth said. “Our state laws protect police officers to the n-th degree.” The Republican majority legislature has passed pro-police measures like HB 57 which made police officers a protected class so that crimes against police officers are classified as hate-crimes. This meant that all crimes – intentional or not – against police officers are punished more severely, regardless of outcome. The General Assembly also passed SB 34, which created a “Blue Alert” that notifies the public when a law enforcement officer is killed or injured.
To compare to Smith’s story, Merideth recounted a story from yesterday of a pair of white criminals who fled police, shot at them, and were arrested. He talked about how police felt more comfortable arresting the two white men who shot at them, than Smith, a black man who did not. For Merideth, the state government has not done enough.
“If anything the lack of action of the Missouri legislature has been on acknowledging racial disparities and trying to address them,” Merideth said. “Or establishing any sort of accountability for police; we’ve had bills proposing independent investigators for police shootings, proposals for body cameras, proposals for changing our arguably unconstitutional use of force statute. None of these things have been done despite independent groups all largely recommending them.”
The Washington Post has been tracking fatal shootings from police officers since 2015 and found that 492 people have been killed by police officers in the first six months of 2017. In their three-year study, 2017 looks on pace to reach their annual average of 977 deaths. While the Post’s three-year study found white men were the most frequently group killed by police, black men accounted for nearly a quarter of the deaths – despite accounting for merely 6 percent of the country’s population.
“The number of interactions and shootings that police have with black folks doesn’t match up to their population percentage, but if you look at who’s committing crimes, the answer is that we’re in these neighborhoods because that’s where these crimes are happening,” Roorda said. “We’re trying to protect black people; we’re trying to make Black Lives matter by keeping those neighborhoods as safe as we can.”
As an advocate for police officers and their safety, he first wants to make sure that law enforcement are safe on the job. He wants to make sure that when officers respond that they are adequately protected from anything that could happen to them. Once they are safe, he feels, then police officers can effectively do their job and make other residents of St. Louis safe as well.
However, Rep. Bruce Franks feels that the police’s attempts to make black neighborhoods safer are themselves making it less safe for blacks.
“It’s not a system built for us,” he said.
He points to the treatment of generations of people that look like him are being abused by the hands of police officers through vicious beatings during the Civil Rights Movement, images of Rodney King, and an exhaustive list of black people – to include Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Delrawns Small, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Lacquan McDonald, Eric Garnder, Walter Scott and others – are being killed by officers only to be later found not responsible.
“It’s like meeting aggression with aggression… [Police] bring this big show of force; you bring intimidation. One thing about black folks in St. Louis is that we’re proud. We stand up for what we believe; we’re not easily frightened. When you bring a group of military officers and militarized police and you give them equipment, with nightsticks and guns, that’s not going to scare us. We’re already out here dying for nothing,” Franks said.
Merideth has been attending the protests in St. Louis and witnesses how menacing the officers are treating protesters.
“There are snipers on the roof and sometimes on the tops of vehicles… To be honest, I have felt much more fear about what the police might do than what any of the protestors might do… I also saw one woman that an Alderman let her into City Hall to go to the bathroom. When she came out, without any provocation, she was tear-gassed in the face. Once people are all on the ground and handcuffed, I don’t understand why I’m watching police still drag them around to the ground, smash their faces into the ground, and spray tear gas at them while they’re already immobile,” Merideth said.
Yet to protect police officers, Roorda believes these tactics are all needed. “The protective and defensive equipment police officers’ use -from their helmets to their firearms- none of that is offensive, it’s all defensive and it’s there to protect them and allow them to protect citizens’ property.” Even despite these measures, over 30 officers have been injured from projectiles thrown by activists alone, according to Roorda.
One of the biggest problems for police officers, which Merideth confirms, happens not during the day, but at night. He said that the nature of the activity changes vividly when the sun goes down. He has witnessed agitators causing trouble on behalf of his cause and are responsible for the majority of the damages at night.
“There is a dramatic difference between what happens during the day and what happens at night. During the day, from what I have seen, the police are severely overprotected and over-militarized… at night, the nature of the activities seems to be changing dramatically,” Merideth said.
Both activists for black lives and police advocates mention the need fair, equal, and equitable protection under, and sometimes from, the law. They both believe that they are entitled to the same American values that were outlined in America’s constitution.
“There’s a criminal justice system in this country that has worked well for 200 years that has as its foundation: that everyone enjoys the same rights,” Roorda says. However, should America become a place where truly everyone has the same rights under the criminal justice system, the means and methods by which to get there, are as disparate as night and day.
Michael Layer is a reporter for the Missouri Times and the Missouri Times Magazine. He joined the Missouri Times in August 2017 after graduating from Goucher College the previous May. To contact Michael, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @_MichaelLayer