Dirty Little Secrets

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department keeps a tight lid on internal affairs. Even if it means breaking the law.

St. Louis police claim the department has destroyed most of the investigative files the Riverfront Times requested. Citing records-retention guidelines published by the Missouri Secretary of State's Office, Michael Stelzer, counsel to Chief Joe Mokwa and the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, says the department destroys files after one year on claims that aren't proven and gets rid of files after five years on sustained complaints.

Lynn Morrow, director of the local-records preservation program in the Secretary of State's Office, says state guidelines for internal-affairs records were written within the past two years. "It wasn't scheduled previously," Morrow says. "We had some police clerks that asked us to put it in there." The guidelines, he adds, are the least that law-enforcement agencies are required to do: "These are minimum [rules]. There's nothing whatsoever to prohibit any official from keeping a record forever if they want to. And some of them do."

Regardless of whether complaints are sustained, destroying internal-affairs files isn't a good idea, says Walker, the University of Nebraska criminologist. Most internal-affairs complaints, particularly those that allege excessive force, aren't sustained owing to a lack of evidence and witnesses, Walker points out. But that doesn't mean the files aren't valuable tools that can be used to identify problem officers.

Jamala Rogers, co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, says the department's refusal to open files on officers accused of crimes is one reason the city needs a civilian review board.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jamala Rogers, co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, says the department's refusal to open files on officers accused of crimes is one reason the city needs a civilian review board.

"I would keep them indefinitely," he says. "Does the Pentagon purge their records of officers? You want an officer's history. If you have an officer who suddenly gets a rash of complaints, that's worth knowing: Is this part of a long-term history, which suggests you've got a real serious problem, or is this something new?"

Even in cases where investigative files have not been destroyed, St. Louis police refused to turn over records. Stelzer cites a clause in the Sunshine Law that says arrest reports aren't public records if no charges are filed within 30 days. But the Riverfront Times did not ask for arrest reports, nor is there any indication that an officer was arrested in the vast majority of the 68 summaries the department did provide. Furthermore, the same section of the Sunshine Law that governs the release of arrest records also states that investigative files -- which are distinct from arrest records under state law -- become public once an investigation is over.

As for blacking out names and badge numbers in complaint summaries, Stelzer cites portions of the Sunshine Law that permit police to redact information if disclosure would jeopardize an investigation, reveal investigative techniques or endanger someone.

Only 29 of the 68 censored summaries provided to the Riverfront Times indicate whether complaints were upheld. Six of those complaints were sustained. But owing to redactions and the lack of investigative files, it's impossible to determine the nature of many charges.

One example is a 1997 case in which a suspected car thief complained that he was kicked, slapped and struck with a flashlight after members of the department's mobile reserve unit arrested him for stealing a Ford Mustang that belonged to a member of the unit. According to a summary dated August 12, 1998, the suspect complained to internal affairs four days after his arrest on October 29 of the previous year. An internal-affairs sergeant photographed his injuries, which included cuts on his head and abrasions on his shins. A week later the internal-affairs division turned over the case to the mobile reserve unit. The summary doesn't say why the investigation was assigned to a unit that included the accused officers. The document does show that four officers received written reprimands ten months after the initial complaint, but who they are and exactly what they did wrong isn't clear. Though the report is titled "Alleged Physical Abuse," the department's statistics show that no physical-abuse cases were sustained that year.

In another case, a 2001 complaint summary doesn't say whether the department sustained an allegation made by a man who accused an off-duty officer of brandishing a gun during a road-rage incident at the intersection of South Grand Boulevard and Humphrey Street. Besides writing down the officer's license-plate number, the complainant identified him from a photograph. As in every other summary provided to Riverfront Times, the department blacked out the officer's name and badge number and withheld the investigative files.

Only the police department knows precisely how many internal-affairs cases involve alleged assaults, thefts or other crimes. But state records, court files and the department's own statistics hint at the extent to which the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is keeping mum about officers who have been accused of breaking the law.

The department, which gave a mere 68 censored summaries to the Riverfront Times, handled 445 physical-abuse cases alone between 1997 and 2002. Noting the discrepancy in a January 5 letter to Stelzer, the newspaper asked why physical-abuse allegations hadn't been considered potential criminal matters and therefore subject to the Sunshine Law. To date, the newspaper has received no explanation.

At least five city officers had their state peace-officer licenses revoked by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission because they committed crimes during the time period covered by the newspaper's information request, but the department released complaint summaries in just two of these cases. The other three cases:

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