By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By RFT Staff
By Keegan Hamilton
By Gavin Cleaver
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has a file on the alleged beating in its internal-affairs division. But the case didn't turn up when the Riverfront Times filed a public-records request six months ago for internal-affairs documents on cases dating back to April 1, 1997, involving officers suspected of criminal conduct.
In fact, not much turned up at all.
It took the department three full months to produce paperwork. First came one-page summaries of 40 complaints, all of them censored to obscure the names and badge numbers of accused officers. The department subsequently produced 28 more summaries, similarly redacted. Some of the summaries were incomplete, cut off in mid-sentence at the end of the first page, before narratives revealed the gist of alleged wrongdoing.
The department didn't hand over any investigative files detailing how complaints had been handled. In most cases, the records that were furnished did not even indicate whether the complaints had been sustained or disproven.
The police did, however, supply a bill. To cover 30-plus hours of staff time spent compiling the paperwork, the department sent along an invoice -- for $1,090.
During the past decade, and especially over the past five years, brutality complaints against St. Louis police have plummeted.
In the early and mid-1990s, the department received more than a hundred physical-abuse complaints annually and upheld four to six allegations each year. By 2002, however, the force had reached a ten-year low, with a mere 24 complaints of physical abuse, none of which were upheld.
St. Louis police last upheld a physical-abuse complaint in 2000, according to department statistics covering the years 1992 through 2002. During that decade, the department sustained nearly 3 percent of such complaints. But if the past four years are considered separately, the rate falls to less than one-half of 1 percent.
Complaints involving other types of officer misconduct are also dropping. Until 2000, department stats show between 587 and 826 internal-affairs complaints were handled each year, including allegations of theft, harassment, verbal abuse, conduct unbecoming an officer and violations of various department procedures. By 2002 the figure had fallen to 384.
Police aren't offering any explanations for the numbers. The department didn't respond to requests for interviews with officials knowledgeable about internal-affairs cases and procedures, nor did the department answer written questions submitted at the request of police spokesman Richard Wilkes.
Outside the department, experts say there could be several reasons behind the trend.
"It could mean either one of two completely opposite things," says Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska criminologist who has studied internal-affairs procedures with the help of grants from the U.S. Department of Justice. "Police behavior could, in fact, be improving. Or it could be that people are just discouraged by the complaint process and so don't bother. There's a long history of departments actually intimidating people from coming in and filing complaints. They just lie and bullshit them, say, 'You can't file a complaint here. No, we don't accept these complaints.'" One of the best-known examples, Walker notes, is Rodney King's brother, who was threatened with arrest when he tried to file a brutality complaint after the infamous videotaped beating in 1991.
Two years ago the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that internal-affairs files are public records when officers are suspected of criminal conduct. The court specifically stated that police departments cannot treat such files as personnel records, pre-empting a tactic that departments, including St. Louis, had often employed in denying access to internal-affairs records. When in doubt, the court said, err on the side of disclosure.
The justices weighed in after Kirkwood police officer Steve Guyer sued his employer, which refused to give him an internal-affairs file prepared after he was accused of drug trafficking and receiving sexual favors from prostitutes. The allegation, which was handled by St. Louis County police, proved false: An investigator who spoke with several witnesses, including the person believed to have filed the anonymous complaint, determined it was a case of neighborhood gossip. But the department claimed the files must be kept secret because they were personnel records, which are exempt from disclosure under the state's Sunshine Law.
With lawyers paid for by the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, Guyer sued, contending that the Sunshine Law required release of the records because the files constituted investigative documents -- the equivalent of police reports that are generated when a civilian is accused of a crime. The supreme court agreed in a ruling issued in March 2001.
The decision in Guyerv. Kirkwoodprompted Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon to alert law-enforcement agencies that internal-affairs files are subject to the Sunshine Law. In a bulletin issued shortly after the decision, the attorney general cautioned that the court had decided complaints are "always" public records in cases of alleged criminal conduct, and that the accompanying investigative files "may" be subject to disclosure. "The impact on police personnel records is significant," reads the dispatch from Nixon's office.
Since Guyer, several local departments, including St. Louis County, Kirkwood and University City, have released internal-affairs files in response to requests from the Riverfront Times. Besides the Guyer documents, the departments released files on former University City officer Anthony Hall, who was fired for suspected theft in 2001; and former county officer Thomas Zeigler, who got into a domestic dispute with his wife in 2002 and was later charged with shooting a fellow officer. No names were blacked out, and cases against the officers were spelled out in detail, as were the efforts made by investigators to find the truth.