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Monday, May 3, 2021

‘The Fight has to Change’: Why Ferguson Activists Ditched Police Reform

Posted By on Mon, May 3, 2021 at 11:44 AM

Page 3 of 3

Taking the reins of power
click to enlarge Kayla Reed, executive director and co-founder of Action St. Louis, speaks to a team of volunteers before they began knocking on doors on March 22. They were asking people to support Tishaura Jones, who was elected as the new mayor of St. Louis on April 6. - LAWRENCE BRYANT
  • Kayla Reed, executive director and co-founder of Action St. Louis, speaks to a team of volunteers before they began knocking on doors on March 22. They were asking people to support Tishaura Jones, who was elected as the new mayor of St. Louis on April 6.

Gardner first pushed legislation to move investigations out of the Police Department back in 2018, and it’s been strongly supported by the activists who wrote the Civilian Oversight Board bill.

In a hearing, the police union’s attorney, Brian Millikan, warned that an independent investigative unit would have a hard time earning the trust of the police officers or persuading them to give “voluntary statements,” which are crucial in criminal investigations. Officers always volunteered to give statements to the Police Department’s internal unit, he noted.

“For these officers to continue to cooperate in the fashion that they do, they need to trust the system in which they are operating under,” Millikan said. “I understand the public needs to trust the system as well. But it’s not just the public.”

The measure never got past the first round of hearings. The same thing happened to another bill, proposed by Alderwoman Megan Green, aimed at curtailing the Police Department’s use of chemical munitions at protests and establishing protocols for how police should respond to protestors.

The union then ran an aggressive campaign against Green, labeling her a communist. In one Facebook post targeting her, the union declared: “BETTER DEAD THAN RED.” Another alderwoman took it as a death threat.

The union also fought the creation of the Civilian Oversight Board. At a raucous public hearing for the bill, dozens of officers stood in unison to oppose the watchdog measure, calling it “anti-police” legislation.

Officers then refused to provide their voluntary statements to the board once it was created. The union sued to try to prevent the board from having access to the statements officers gave to Internal Affairs investigators, but ultimately lost the suit.

Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said the union is unfairly accused of being anti-reform and of protecting bad officers. 

“The purpose of the police union is to advocate for all its members,” he said. “Our mission statement for years was to obtain a union contract, collective bargaining rights and due process rights. That’s always been kind of our focus.”

Meanwhile, he couldn’t recall a single instance when the union has publicly denounced a police officer for misconduct.

Terry Kennedy is the longtime aldermen who championed the civilian oversight bill and led the Black Aldermanic Caucus for many years. He grew up hearing stories about his enslaved great-grandparents — what they did in the struggle to “move the needle” for his generation.

Kennedy has spent his life trying to do the same for this new generation of activists, like Kayla Reed. And he understands that they have to come up with new tactics to meet the moment.

“Racism and white supremacy is adaptable,” Kennedy said. “As opposed to being so overt, it became more institutionalized. So the fight has to change.”

As Reed watched reform after reform die, she began to see where power truly resided and decided she’d been doing it all wrong.

She drew up a whole new plan back in 2016. Reed would build a movement that would become as politically powerful as the police union. Any prosecutor, alderman or mayor who wanted to get elected would need the movement’s endorsement. If they didn’t support reform legislation, they’d have to think about how it would impact her support.

They would take control of the reins of power. They would change policing as we know it. So police stop killing Black people.

“We spend too much money on police,” Reed said, “and it’s not keeping us safe. What does it mean to spend that much money on people? That’s not radical. That’s not revolutionary. That is common sense to me.”

Reveal reporter Trey Bundy contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue, Jason Hancock and Nina Martin. Kenya Vaughn was a contributing editor. It was fact checked by Liz Boyd and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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