Officer Steven Blakeney Terrorized the St. Louis Area. Why Did No One Stop This Very Bad Cop?

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Officer Steven Blakeney Terrorized the St. Louis Area. Why Did No One Stop This Very Bad Cop?
ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

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Ex-Pine Lawn Mayor Sylvester is serving 33 months in federal prison for taking bribes from business owners. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Ex-Pine Lawn Mayor Sylvester is serving 33 months in federal prison for taking bribes from business owners.

Blakeney's rise in Pine Lawn is a chicken-or-egg scenario. Did he become powerful because he was corrupt? Or did he become corrupt because the city's crooked mayor made him powerful?

What is certain is that the man who a police academy director had said should never be a cop piled up a career's worth of promotions in less than five years in Pine Lawn. He was a corporal within a year and a sergeant in two. He made lieutenant in the spring of 2014.

He usually worked nights, according to former co-workers, patrolling the run-down city of small bungalows under the glow of streetlights. Ex-officers say Pine Lawn was a busy place to work, especially after dark. "We were rolling around in the streets, fighting gang bangers," says one. "They were shooting little kids in the head, killing them. It's a freaking war zone over there."

Blakeney, whose top salary was $44,160 a year at Pine Lawn, hit the streets like a wrecking ball, as if he was making up for the seven years he spent trying to get his license. He had lights and sirens installed in his personal Ford Explorer and liked to tell people he considered himself on duty 24 hours a day.

Pine Lawn, with a footprint of just six-tenths of a square mile, was only a starting point for Blakeney. He was prone to pulling over drivers at any time in any part of St. Louis County. He was almost always armed. His ex-wife, Amanda Blakeney, says he wore a gun on his hip even when he mowed the grass.

"He wouldn't go anywhere without it," she says.

Carmen Marshall, who supervised Pine Lawn's corrections officers, says Blakeney looked like a nerdy military type when he first arrived in the city, but there was something about him she didn't like.

"I remember telling people, 'This is trouble,'" Marshall says.

It seems almost trivial now, but she recalls Mayor Sylvester Caldwell chastising Blakeney one day early on about the dull finish of his boots. Caldwell, a flamboyant politician who worked a side job as a DJ, not only served as mayor, but also had taken over the department as the city's police commissioner.

Like an eager-to-please schoolboy, Blakeney assured the mayor he had shoes at home that shined.

"He came in the next day, and he had on these patent leather shoes — with white socks," Marshall says. "The mayor knew right then, this is somebody that I can get to do what I want him to do."

Caldwell made zero tolerance for crime and housing code violations one of his platforms. Pine Lawn's residents suffered under the same conditions of poverty and aggressive policing that would later be blamed for fueling protests in Ferguson and Michael Brown's death. The city's population was more than 90 percent black with a median income of just $26,600 a year, less than half that of the larger metro area.

State auditors have repeatedly criticized the city for shaky bookkeeping and a budget that leaned hard on municipal fines. A 2016 report by state Auditor Nicole Galloway found police had collected $14,000 in illegal bail processing fees. Fines from traffic citations accounted for 46 percent of the city's budget, well beyond the legal limit of 30 percent. Pine Lawn probably owed the Department of Revenue more than $400,000 as a result of the excessive fines, according to auditors' calculations.

"It's policing for profit," ACLU of Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman says. "We are using people as piggy banks."

To make the system work, cities such as Pine Lawn need cops writing tickets, impounding cars and locking people up. Goldman, the SLU law professor, says a lot of these small, impoverished cities field departments full of officers who are either young and inexperienced or have already been forced out elsewhere. They can't get on at bigger, better-paying departments, such as the city or county, and settle for places like Pine Lawn as a last resort.

It's the residents who suffer. "These cops that they're getting are damaged goods," Goldman says.

In Pine Lawn, it was common knowledge that the police license of no less than Chief Rickey Collins was under permanent probation with the state as the result of a sexual assault allegation in the 1980s. A sergeant had been fired from two other departments amid allegations of sexual misconduct before finding a home with Pine Lawn. Darren Wilson, who'd go on to Ferguson infamy, passed through the department. He lasted less than a week.

Chief Collins was a complex figure. A childhood friend of Mayor Caldwell, he was a swaggering presence in the city. He was the enthusiastic backer of a controversial ban on sagging pants, an organizer who took city kids to Disney on Ice and a crime fighter who raised thousands of dollars to fund a reward in a high-profile murder case.

He was also investigated by St. Louis County prosecutors for shooting at a man at a traffic stop. Many in Pine Lawn saw him as the strongman for the mayor's aggressive policies — at least until Blakeney arrived.

"Before Blakeney came there, Collins was it. He got whatever he wanted," says Clarence Harmon, a police corporal who worked in Pine Lawn for about seven years after 21 with St. Louis city. "After Blakeney got there, he couldn't get you a day off."

Harmon claims Caldwell began to go to Blakeney when he needed help with special projects. It wasn't long before the rank-and-file noticed the shift in power. Multiple officers tell the Riverfront Times that orders began to run through Blakeney, who brought in his old friend from the academy, Fleming, to run the detectives and serve as the department's internal affairs investigator. Blakeney became so bold he would mouth off to Collins right in front of the department, officers say.

"At the end, Blakeney would talk to Collins like he was a five-year-old child," Harmon says.

He remembers confronting the chief about it one day, dumbfounded he'd let an underling talk back to him. Collins looked at the floor.

"That's Caldwell's boy now," he said.

Asked about the encounter by the RFT, Collins says, "I remember." The chief claims he was powerless to control Blakeney and grew increasingly uncomfortable with what the mayor was doing.

The worst of it was the investigation into Nakisha Ford-Smith. She was one of a handful of Pine Lawn residents who'd begun to publicly oppose Caldwell. The mayor called them "the Bitter Bunch."

Ford-Smith was running against Caldwell for mayor in 2013 when Pine Lawn police pounded on her door. It was Easter night, and they cuffed her and dragged her from her home, alleging Ford-Smith had stolen campaign signs from the Pine Lawn Food Market.

An FBI investigation would eventually prove it was all a setup. Blakeney had ordered the market's manager to call in a false police report, which kicked off the sham investigation used to arrest and embarrass Ford-Smith, according to federal prosecutors.

Collins claims the scheme was orchestrated behind his back.

"I was called in without even knowing what I was doing," Collins says. "[The mayor] just told me to get in the car with Steven — without even telling me what I was doing."

Collins says he'd previously met Ford-Smith at a kids' function at Barack Obama Elementary School and liked her. Now, his officers were taking her out of her home, parading her past news cameras for what smelled an awful lot like dirty politics.

"I almost threw up," he says.

Collins was fired two months later. He declined to discuss the details of his termination, because he has a pending lawsuit against the city. Attempts to arrange a jailhouse interview with Blakeney were unsuccessful.

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