Dirty Little Secrets

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

Bringing the case to the supreme court, Mayer says, came with the risk of airing laundry that many officers would prefer remain hidden.

"The potential for abuse of that decision is rampant," Mayer asserts. "It could really, really turn things upside down. The reason we went forward is, any employee -- not just in a police department -- should have access to his own file. The FOP's role in that was simply protecting the cop's rights."

Mayer says officers who are the subject of complaints should be publicly named only if they're actually charged with crimes. There's a difference, he believes, between handing over an internal-affairs file to an accused police officer and giving files to anyone who asks.

Photoillustration by Tom Carlson, photography by J
Jason Cole lost a tooth in his encounter with St. Louis police. Witnesses to the incident say the teen wasn't resisting officers.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jason Cole lost a tooth in his encounter with St. Louis police. Witnesses to the incident say the teen wasn't resisting officers.

"Wrong," counters Jean Maneke, First Amendment attorney for the Missouri Press Association, which lobbies the state legislature on behalf of the media. "Who requests the information has nothing to do with anything."

Nor does the outcome of the investigation. The court ruled that the Guyer file is a public document even though allegations proved unfounded. Maneke also notes that police aren't supposed to withhold entire investigative files when officers are accused of crimes. While state law allows some information to be redacted if it would reveal investigative techniques or pose a "clear and present danger" to an officer, witness or victim, that's a far cry from wholesale refusal to produce files, says Maneke. "The exception [to the Sunshine Law] doesn't talk about withholding the whole record," she notes. "It talks about withholding portions of the record."

Like the state attorney general, Greg Kloeppel, the lawyer retained by the Fraternal Order of Police to argue Guyer's case, says internal-affairs complaints alleging possible criminal conduct are always public records. Accompanying investigative files are also subject to disclosure, he says, with the caveat that information posing a danger to a person or an investigation can be excised. And that's not likely once an investigation has been completed, Kloeppel argued in the Guyer case.

The Guyer decision notwithstanding, local civil-rights attorneys and activists say "trust us" has always been the St. Louis police department's watchword when its officers are accused of wrongdoing.

"I have a difficult time securing these types of reports, even in the context of litigation," says Stephen Ryals, a Clayton lawyer who represented Gregory Bell and who has handled several other police-brutality lawsuits filed in federal court. "I think it's important in a free society that these sorts of matters be aired in a public forum, in the public eye. If it's all done in secrecy, behind closed doors where nothing that they do is subject to open review, it at least creates an atmosphere of possible suspicion and mistrust."

Jamala Rogers, co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, says internal-affairs secrecy is one reason her group is calling for a civilian oversight board to hear complaints against police.

"When police officers appear to commit crimes, they shouldn't be treated differently than any other suspect, but they are," Rogers says. "We need to have some measures of accountability, and the only way to do that is to have the information."

Although the Guyer decision opened a door that had previously been closed, members of the media in St. Louis have shown little interest in stepping through it. St. Louis police say they've received just five requests for internal-affairs files since the Guyer decision. All five came from the Riverfront Times.

"Isn't that strange, that a city police department of this size has only had one entity asking for information," Rogers observes. "Either they're lying or, worse, people have stopped asking."

Richard Weil, an assistant managing editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says the paper has asked St. Louis police for at least two internal-affairs files since the Guyer decision. On the first occasion, in 2001, the paper asked for files involving Maurice Nutt, a police board member who resigned after he was accused of sexually harassing officers. Weil says the paper got the information it wanted through other means and didn't follow up on its Sunshine Law request. "We kind of let it slide," he says. The second request, made about a month ago, is pending, Weil says. State law requires public agencies to respond to such requests within three days. In extraordinary cases, the law says agencies may go beyond the three-day limit, but there must be "reasonable cause" for the delay, which must be explained in detail to the person requesting the record.

Although police departments have historically been insular institutions, Chief Joe Mokwa doesn't duck controversy and knows the importance of public-records laws, remembers Eddie Roth, a former police board commissioner who left St. Louis two years ago to take a job as an editorial writer with the Dayton Daily News in Ohio.

"It's a constant struggle to have the doors and windows opened as widely as you'd like them to be," says Roth, a licensed attorney who is familiar with the Guyer decision. "I think Chief Mokwa is a very open guy who does understand the obvious public interest in this material."

But Roth was surprised to learn that the department won't release names of officers even in physical-abuse complaints that have been sustained. "Gee whiz," Roth exclaimed. "Who are you dealing with over there? Maybe I can help. Let me make some calls."

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