Kissed-Off in Kinloch: The city's tiny police force is up in arms over paltry pay and dangerous work conditions

Kissed-Off in Kinloch: The city's tiny police force is up in arms over paltry pay and dangerous work conditions

Cruising along Kinloch's desolate streets, Everett James can quickly locate a corner where the city's drug dealers converge. Across from a cluster of rundown public-housing projects, a dozen young men loiter near an overgrown baseball diamond.

"Everybody down there is there for the purpose of selling drugs," the 50-year-old James says in a deep baritone voice that suits his hefty frame. "Every single one — they got different types, crack, heroin, marijuana — people even come in from different cities to buy and sell because they know it's safe to do it."

For nearly three years, James was the captain of the Kinloch Police Department. He says he was fired March 2, three days after organizing a short-lived strike by the six officers who comprise the entire police force in this tiny municipality, located just east of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. "It was the [police] chief that told me I was fired, but he said, 'The mayor don't want you here no more,'" says James.

"He wasn't fired. He walked out. I didn't fire him. He just walked out. He walked out and didn't come back," counters Kinloch mayor Keith Conway. "Nobody else walked out. You know all this and I don't know any of this. This is totally new to me."

Police Chief Donald Hardy refused to meet with Riverfront Times regarding James' claims and did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

James and other officers say they are fed up with the city and its police department. Their grievances include allegations of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and dangerous working conditions caused by a lack of manpower and proper equipment.

"Whatever every police officer in the world gets, we don't have it," says James, adding that Kinloch's finest must buy their own flashlights and bulletproof vests.

"The police [are] unhappy — that's understandable. The economy is bad," says Conway. "Could be a lot of things on a man's mind: his home, his health. I'm trying to take care of who's with us. If you with us, fine. If not, see you, good luck to you."

James notes that responding to late-night calls for disturbances at the city's drug corners is particularly hazardous because Kinloch only has one officer on duty at any given time, and the nearest department that can provide emergency help is ten minutes away in Pine Lawn.

"As a police officer, you go to work and you take certain risks," James says. "You might get shot or killed, but you expect the city to at least try to have some backup for you. Finally, I said enough is enough. I called all the officers together and said, Look, somebody is going to get killed out here, it's just a matter of time."

On Friday, February 27, James orchestrated a "blue flu," the term used when an entire police force calls in sick at the same time. He dialed the area's emergency dispatch service and told it to route all calls through St. Louis County.

"I got a phone call asking me if we were patrolling [Kinloch]," confirms St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus. "That was the rumor, that there was a blue flu up there. It doesn't surprise me. There are a lot of departments right now where everyone is unhappy with their pay, and Kinloch has a history of having issues."

Previous newspaper reports show that county police have been forced to take over patrol duties in Kinloch seven times since 1967. The latest intervention came in 2002 after an officer accidentally shot and wounded an unarmed motorist during a routine traffic stop.

Most recently, on February 24, a corrections officer was charged with a felony for having sexual contact with a female inmate inside the Kinloch jail, which adjoins city hall and the police station.

"If there is a determination that a municipal police department is no longer capable of performing its functions, then St. Louis County is required to take over. It's a state law," says Mac Scott, director of communications for County Executive Charlie Dooley. "But last time we were in there, if I remember correctly, we had a problem collecting what we were owed for doing it."

Scott is referring to more than $1.8 million in unpaid fees for county police services that Kinloch accrued before county officials decided, in December 2007, that the town again had adequate resources to police itself.

With a population of about 430 residents, 80 percent of whom live below the poverty line, Kinloch is statistically the poorest of the county's 91 municipalities.

Kinloch was founded in the early twentieth century as the first all African American city in Missouri. In the 1960s it was home to more than 10,000 people. Then, starting in the late 1980s, the airport bought approximately 215 acres of city land and more than 1,300 properties for a runway expansion. After the buyouts displaced residents and stripped the city of its tax base, Kinloch was left to wither.

Today, piles of concrete rubble, junk-strewn vacant lots and burnt-out buildings give the city the feel of a war zone. There is hope on the horizon, however, in the form of a massive 550-acre office and industrial-park development called NorthPark, which broke ground in 2006 and spans parts of Kinloch, Berkeley and Ferguson.

Kinloch has a yearly operating budget of about $600,000. James says he was paid $13.50 an hour, and lower-ranking policemen earn an hourly rate of $11.50. They receive no health benefits or life-insurance policies.

One officer, who asked not to be named for fear that he'd lose his job, says the city owes him thousands in back pay for hours worked as far back as 2004. James tells a similar tale, saying the city started deferring some of his pay in September, and by the time he led the strike, he was owed more than $4,000. He was paid the day he was fired.

"That just boiled Everett over," says another officer, who also asked to remain anonymous. "[The strike] happened for a total of about three hours, and then the chief got somebody to come in. Basically, because we were promised, 'If you come on in, your back pay will be here the next day.' It wasn't. They didn't have it until the next week, and some people they still owe money to."

"No one is owed back pay," Conway insists. "Everybody has been paid exactly what we owe them."

James also claims the police department lacks a workers' compensation program, another charge Conway denies. In January 2007 he shot a suspect after a physical altercation that left him hospitalized with wounds to his face and head. The city, he says, sent him a medical bill for $3,000 for the injuries he sustained in the line of duty.

Since he lost his job earlier this month, James has been applying for private security jobs and taking online courses to get his master's degree in ministry. He preaches at the Kinloch Church of God. He says he's not bitter about losing his job for organizing the strike.

"I don't blame the mayor. I told him, I will do this again until we get decent conditions," he recalls. "Right now, I don't have a job, but I'm feeling great because I'm not out in those streets."

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