Hartmann: St. Louis County Police Commander's Lawsuit Lays Bare Racism

Feb 17, 2021 at 4:00 am
St. Louis police Lt. Col. Troy Doyle (left) and County Executive Sam Page.
St. Louis police Lt. Col. Troy Doyle (left) and County Executive Sam Page. ST. LOUIS COUNTY/LEXIE MILLER

I could not serve as an impartial juror in police Lt. Col. Troy Doyle's race discrimination lawsuit against St. Louis County.

The searing allegations put forth in the suit released last week by attorney Jerome Dobson are just that — allegations — and the absence of the defendants' response isn't an implied concession. That's why there's a judicial system.

But if you know lots of the players and background — either personally or through the news — it's impossible to pretend to have an unbiased view. What happened to Doyle is more than believable: It's both a confirmation and indictment of systemic racism in the county in general and the police department in particular.

And it demonstrates that County Executive Sam Page is not at all what he claims to be as a politician. At best, Page has betrayed all the talk about pay-to-play being a thing of the past in St. Louis County. At worst, he's not up to his job.

The overarching facts are pretty clear. Doyle was eager to become chief of police to follow the failed stewardship of Chief Jon Belmar. Doyle had a proven track record of competence and leadership over nearly three decades with the county police. To his fleeting credit, Page understood this.

The lawsuit lays out Doyle's incredible resume, including four promotions, experience with elite FBI task forces, a strong record in police-community relations and much more. If anything, it understates what is widely known about Doyle: He has been the go-to guy for multiple chiefs in handling some of the county's most vexing police challenges, from Jennings to north St. Louis County to the jail.

So Page deserves credit for his initial inclination to advocate for Doyle to become chief. It was the obvious call. Page's support was documented on a recording released last July by Dobson. Page's words, that "the police board will do what I tell it to do," were unambiguous.

But that was just the early part of a compelling timeline laid out in Doyle's court filing. If anything, Page advocated for Doyle to a fault: If, as alleged, he truly arranged meetings for Doyle with prospective police board members William Ray Price and Michelle Schwerin before he had even appointed them, that would have been grossly inappropriate.

I suppose you can't blame Doyle for visiting with Price and Schwerin at Page's direction, but you can certainly fault Price and Schwerin for taking such a meeting and Page for doing the arranging. It's the sort of thing that Page's predecessor Steve Stenger might have done. And had he done so, Page would have gone ballistic as chairman of the county council.

Even though it's common knowledge that county executives traditionally have influenced the selections of police chiefs — and no chief has been known to have gotten hired over a county executive's objection — the Board of Police Commissioners is still an independent entity. Page doesn't seem to think so.

It's one thing for Page to have arranged meetings with members of the business community or other influencers. Having well-connected advocates is a far cry from attempting to lobby board members — or prospective board members — with secret meetings with candidates. That's a far cry even from the county executive cajoling the members himself.

The greatest irony is how unfair that was, initially, to Chief Mary Barton when she was chief candidate Mary Barton. All candidates for a post as important as police chief should have some expectation of fairness and impartiality on the part of the police board.

But as it turns out, Barton wasn't such a victim after all, because something seems to have changed Page's mind. That's where the lawsuit gets especially intriguing, with its allegations that Page was desperate to raise campaign funds for his 2020 election race, leading him to turn to funding sources who in turn weren't good with hiring Doyle.

Doyle's lawsuit attempts to connect the dots between Page's need to please influential donors and his ensuing difficulty in getting Doyle "across the finish line." That brings us to the St. Louis Police Foundation, a not-for-profit dominated by business elites supporting law-enforcement efforts in the region. Here again, whether you buy the lawsuit is colored in no small part by whether you can imagine business elites in St. Louis pushing back against the idea of a Black police chief. I can.

Now they wouldn't say so publicly, nor would they oppose the idea in the abstract. But the combination of having a Black prosecuting attorney (which the county has in Wesley Bell) and a Black police chief and a growing crime problem with sharp racial overtones and an ongoing concern about white flight to surrounding counties based on race, well, yes, I can see someone in power having asked, "What are you going to do about the Black guy?" and having said, "We don't need a Black police chief."

I can also see Page having played both sides against the middle like the politician he is. I can see him being fine with acceding to the wishes of corporate benefactors and turning around to tell Doyle that he was appalled by the horrific racism of it all. Both might well have happened.

That's the stuff that will have to be sorted out in the legal process. Perhaps the case will get settled, although Dobson told me that County Counselor Beth Orwick had previously "batted away" an offer to settle. But Dobson is one of the top employment attorneys in town, so he could just be negotiating.

What's not negotiable is this: St. Louis County ended up with the wrong police chief. Barton apparently was a fine police officer and might possess the best of intentions. But to describe her as unsuited for her current position would be a grave understatement.

This is a woman whose first big moment on the stage was to swing and miss at a softball question about systemic racism in the police department just weeks after the George Floyd murder. Her denial that it existed — rather than maybe saying it's a problem everywhere and she was committed to addressing it — was a sure sign that messaging wasn't her strength.

By contrast, Doyle is remarkably skilled in communication, as anyone who follows his work knows. He not only outranked Barton and had dramatically better police credentials, he also is strongest where she is weakest, which is in representing police to the community. That key element of a police chief's job — whether in the media or in the Black community or elsewhere — is in Doyle's sweet spot. And it's above Barton's pay grade.

So we'll have to wait and see how the lawsuit plays out. But the returns are already in with regard to Page having still another terrible moment in his relations with the Black community. He really blew this one.

Among the most amusing asides in the lawsuit is the allegation that Page asked Doyle to ask state Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, if his campaign donors might help Page. Dogan, one of the best and brightest Missouri legislators (and the only Black Republican), issued a statement saying that hadn't happened.

Turns out, Dogan is seriously considering a run against Page for county executive. If the election were tomorrow, he would be the easy choice on his own merits. But stated another way, if Page's record on race and policing gets put on trial, I could not serve as an impartial juror.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).