With St. Louis Cops on Trial, Republicans Say Police Need More Protection

click to enlarge Chief John Hayden opposed a law enforcement "Bill of Rights" that would weaken internal affairs' ability to investigate bad cops. - DOYLE MURPHY
Chief John Hayden opposed a law enforcement "Bill of Rights" that would weaken internal affairs' ability to investigate bad cops.

As lawyers for one current and two former St. Louis police officers argued this week in federal court over which cops beat a Black undercover detective and which cops lied about it, Republican lawmakers promoted a bill to make it harder to hold police accountable for misconduct.

In the Missouri House of Representatives, the crime prevention committee held a hearing on a bill sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Bill Eigel (R-Weldon Spring) that would create new protections for officers, including requirements that investigators begin their inquiries into crooked officers by essentially spelling out everything they have and handing over key information to the officers — rights that no non-police officers have.

"Our Law Enforcement officers are under more scrutiny today than at any other time in recent memory," Eigel wrote on Facebook in defense of the bill. "There are many groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa that are falsely accusing our police of being something other than what they are: namely, the honorable protectors of our communities."

The bill is part of a matched set sponsored by Republican legislators. Along with creating a "Law Enforcement Bill of Rights," the bills also include provisions for hammering protesters. A complementary bill from Sen. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville) sought to authorize drivers to run over protesters blocking roads and charge those in the streets with felonies.

Eigel's proposed legislation also creates a new crime with which to charge people marching in roads. Without saying the names of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, Eigel makes it clear that his bill is a response to the nationwide protests that followed the police killings.

"Organizations like Black Lives Matter and Antifa have assaulted our communities and urban areas for nearly a year, endangering themselves, emergency workers, and community residents," Eigel wrote on Facebook.

In St. Louis, ex-police officers Chris Myers and Dustin Boone and current officer Steven Korte spent the week on trial, facing accusations they assaulted an undercover detective in 2017 whom they believed was a protester. Another ex-cop, Randy Hays, has already pleaded guilty, admitting he beat Det. Luther Hall with a baton even though Hall was on the ground and posed no threat. And ex-cop Bailey Colletta has also pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI and a grand jury as part of the attempted cover-up.

The case was underway at the exact moment Eigel's bill was being debated in the House crime prevention committee. The juxtaposition of the two competing scenes was not lost on St. Louis police Chief John Hayden. A spokesperson emailed reporters in mid-March, reinforcing Hayden's opposition to Eigel's bill and similar legislation sponsored in the House by another St. Charles Republican, Rep. Nick Schroer, because they would weaken the powers of internal affairs to investigate problem officers.

Along with the case against Boone, Korte and Myers, Hayden was dealing with another catastrophe — rape and other sex-crime charges against St. Louis police officers Torey Phelps and Lafeal Lawshea. Another officer, Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow, was charged with misdemeanor tampering with a victim. She's accused of trying to talk a woman into reconsidering allegations against Lawshea.

"The fact that we have officers on trial for excessive force and officers accused of sexual assault, all in the same week, demonstrates the importance of thorough and often lengthy internal investigations of officer misconduct," Sgt. Keith Barrett, a police spokesman, wrote in an email to reporters. "The intention of these bills would undermine our ability to hold officers accountable and meet the integrity expectations of the citizens we serve."

In letters to Schroer and Eigel, Hayden wrote that proposed requirements to notify officers at the front end of an inquiry would be a "tip off," potentially allowing officers to cover their tracks. Similarly, being forced to turn over audio and video in the department's possession to targets of internal investigations could short-circuit probes into wrongdoing.

The legislators are asking the state to give cops "rights beyond that of the average citizen accused of criminal behavior," Hayden wrote.

Critics of provisions of parts of the bills that target protesters point out that marching in roadways is a tactic used by civil rights activists for generations. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of supporters famously marched from Selma, Alabama, toward Montgomery in 1965. Activists had been savagely beaten by law enforcement days before on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the attack, known as "Bloody Sunday," was seen as a turning point in the civil rights movement.

In support of his bill, Eigel says law enforcement officers need further protections and that protesters who enter roadways endanger everyone.

"That's right—if you place yourself and others in the way of direct physical harm by unlawfully blocking a street or highway, you will be charged with a crime for that," Eigel wrote on Facebook. "This isn't a free speech issue—it's about safety."

In the House crime prevention committee's hearing on Monday, critics of the bill disagreed.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis) called it a "direct attack on people who have been exercising their First Amendment rights and, to be clear, people of color."

Eigel's proposal passed through the Senate, before heading to the House's crime prevention committee. Many of the arguments in support of the bill have focused on hypothetical scenarios of ambulances or fire trucks getting stuck behind protesters, endangering lives. But one of the members of the Republican-dominated crime prevention committee, Rep. Brian Seitz, offered a first-person account of the harm protesters have already caused by blocking roads.

The Republican from Branson, who recently complained the left is trying to cancel him after he was criticized for insisting on calling COVID-19 the "Chinese Virus," had planned to do some shopping with his wife in Springfield when they heard reports of protesters blocking roads. Faced with this information, Seitz told the committee, he and his wife elected to stay home.
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