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Don't Expect Ferguson-Style Police Oversight from Trump's Justice Department 

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click to enlarge Maleeha Ahmad shouts at St. Louis police in 2017 after she was pepper sprayed while protesting the Jason Stockley verdict. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Maleeha Ahmad shouts at St. Louis police in 2017 after she was pepper sprayed while protesting the Jason Stockley verdict.

Javad Khazaeli has watched the response of police departments to the George Floyd protests with a certain amount of déjà vu.

The St. Louis-based attorney is counsel or co-counsel in about twenty federal civil rights lawsuits against the city as a result of its police crackdown on protesters following the 2017 acquittal of ex-cop Jason Stockley, who was accused of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black 24-year-old suspected of dealing drugs.

Protests lasted for weeks, and police cracked down hard. On the third night, officers surrounded a group of people in a downtown intersection and swarmed in with pepper spray, batons and zip ties, indiscriminately arresting anyone trapped inside the "kettle" when officers blocked off all pathways to exit. The group included journalists, neighbors and demonstrators.

A black undercover police officer was also beaten severely that night by fellow cops who thought he was a protester. Five city cops were later indicted on federal charges, including two who have pleaded guilty. The criminal case turned up text messages among several of the officers, bragging about beating up protesters.

Khazaeli of Khazaeli Wyrsch LLC sees echoes of the Stockley protest police attacks in the video clips and reported accounts of officers across the country brutalizing people at George Floyd demonstrations.

"These acts are inspired by what St. Louis police officers did almost three years ago, which was captured on video," Khazaeli says. And while St. Louis cops have mostly avoided landing on the highlight reels of police abuse during George Floyd protests here, Khazaeli wonders what, if anything, they've learned. To date, the city hasn't conceded police were wrong during the Stockley protests, he says. Khazaeli pointed out that St. Louis police Chief John Hayden recently noted the same police commander who oversaw the kettle, Lt. Gerald Leyshock, was leading the department's response to current protests.

"Nobody in St. Louis government has had the courage to do anything about it," Khazaeli says of sorting out the Stockley abuses. "In fact, the chief of police [last week] told the public that we should be encouraged by the fact that the same man that was the architect of these illegal arrests and the kettling is once again in charge of the police's response to the George Floyd protests."

In the vacuum left by the feds, the courts are one of the few options to force reforms, he says.

"We see that the Trump Department of Justice has abdicated their role in keeping police departments accountable, and local governments, like St. Louis city, refuse to do the same, [so] the only avenue is civil lawsuits," Khazaeli says. "Unfortunately, that means taxpayers are left with the burden of paying for the damage these officers inflict on the community."

Even if the Justice Department has a change of heart and returns to the business of overseeing and reforming police departments, not everyone is convinced consent decrees are making the kind of change needed.

Nearly six years after Michael Brown's death, Ferguson's consent decree is still in progress. John Chasnoff, a program director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, says there have been some reforms made, but the city has been slow in implementing the full list of required changes. Sessions' memo limited the ability to expand the agreements, and activists such as Chasnoff wonder about the city's commitment.

"We have often felt that they are running out the clock," he says. "They haven't done everything they could."

No one from the monitoring team or police department responded to the Riverfront Times' requests for comment.

Left with the option of trying to force existing police departments to be better through incremental changes, the concept of "defunding" police departments has begun to gain popularity. The idea is that instead of continuously sinking money into rewritten policies and training that has done little to change a criminal justice system that continues to incarcerate minorities at extreme rates, we would be better off shifting tax dollars to health care, education, jobs programs and other options that attack social ills.

It's more than talk: A majority of Minneapolis' city council members have announced they plan to disband the city's troubled police department and replace it with a new public safety model.

In St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, a public-interest law firm that represents some of the metro's most vulnerable, has advocated a platform that includes defunding police.

"That does not mean no accountability," Executive Director Blake Strode writes in a column for the St. Louis American. "It does not mean we go without response to or repair of harm. And it certainly does not mean we abandon any commitment to justice. But policing does not provide us with those things. It never has, and it never will. Believing that policing is what preserves accountability and justice is as fantastical as believing that Second Amendment gun rights are what protect ordinary people from tyranny. It is a familiar and deeply rooted claim, but it is a lie."

Riverfront Times reporting intern Judy Lucas contributed to this story.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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