The St. Louis cops — and former St. Louis cops — lining the walls of an overheated conference room have a simple pitch for the nearly two dozen potential recruits seated before them: We need you.
"You know what's going on," Redditt Hudson, a former city police officer and longtime advocate for criminal-justice reform, tells the group. "You see what's going on all around the country. We need black officers. We need officers from marginalized communities."
It is after sunset in late February at the Urban League's headquarters off Grandel Square, and this is the first night of a ten-week recruiting program run by the Ethical Society of Police, an association that primarily represents St. Louis' black police officers. The program is a crash course in how to be a cop. Applicants will learn the basics of law enforcement, such as writing reports and conducting legal searches, but also lessons that run counter to "thin blue line" protectionism among officers: calling out abusive colleagues, policing to serve and generally pushing back against elements of a criminal justice system that hammer poor black and brown communities the hardest.
"We don't need any bad cops — black, white, Asian, whatever," Sgt. Heather Taylor says.
As the president of Ethical, Taylor has been a driving force in the resurrection of the recruitment program. The course was originally created with the support of city funding in the aftermath of Ferguson protests to increase the diversity of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. African Americans comprise only about one-third of the city's officers despite accounting for nearly half of the population. Two classes in 2015 and 2016 produced 37 graduates who landed jobs in law enforcement, either as cops or civilian staffers. But the city pulled its funding after Taylor's predecessor was caught embezzling more than $80,000 of the association's money to fund his side business, promoting comedy acts. Ethical discovered the irregularities and turned him in.
If the ex-president, Darren Randal Wilson, thought the brotherhood of police officers might persuade his old colleagues to rally around a fellow cop, Taylor showed him otherwise. She went to court to ask the judge to send him to prison and then blasted him in the press. Seizing on the comedy-promoter angle, she told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter after the sentencing hearing that Wilson was a "clown" who deserved to be locked up.
There was no class in 2017, and Ethical has had to shell out more than $14,000 of its own money — $2,500 of it reimbursed by the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce — to reboot the program this year, Taylor says. But there is a sense among the association's members that the work of changing the department is too important to abandon. A number of the instructors have refused payment, even though Ethical offers. The Urban League, where Hudson is a vice president, lets them use the conference room for free.
The recruits, too, are committed. They are signing on for three-hour sessions every Tuesday and Thursday evening, a 60-hour investment that comes with no promise of payoff. Even if they complete the program, they are not guaranteed entrance into the police academy, much less a job as a city cop.
Taylor encourages them, with the warning that if she ever learns they are abusing their power, not only will she work to see them prosecuted, she will make sure everyone knows what they did: "I'm going to try to put you on the news. CNN."
The recruits nod. A number of them have come straight from work, evident in the array of uniforms: orange safety vests, collared shirts embroidered with convenience store logos, a polo from the U.S. Postal Service. A few have brought their kids rather than spend money on a baby sitter. As they introduce themselves, they reveal a wide variety of reasons for coming here. Some say they like helping people. Others think their neighborhoods would benefit from seeing cops who look like them. A few are fans of police shows on TV.
Johnetta Doss, a 38-year-old mother of five, says she felt like her husband would not have supported her dream of joining the force. Now that she is divorced, she is going for it. "This is what I want to do, and I'm going to do it."
At least three are ex-military. Andre Hollwell, 32, served four years in the Navy after graduating from McCluer North High School in Florissant. He works twelve-hour shifts at RB Manufacturing but thinks policing would be more meaningful.
And then there is Sean Liddell, a 32-year-old police dispatcher in University City, who is hoping for a second shot at the police academy. Inspired by Ferguson to become a police officer, he entered the city's academy in October 2014 only to get bounced out a month before graduation. Liddell sees now he wasn't prepared, but after two years handling emergency calls on the phone and radio, he's eager to begin again. "For me," he says, "it's about finishing what I started."
As the recruits settle in around the table, there is a sudden commotion as the door to the conference room swings open. Col. John Hayden has decided to make a surprise visit. After three decades with the department, he was promoted to chief two months before. He does not talk for long, but he tells the recruits plainly that the force needs more minority officers.
"I'm encouraging you," he says. "I'm just short of begging you."
The lack of black police officers in the city, says Jimmie Edwards, is clearly a problem.
"I think it is imperative that the police department is a reflection of the community," he says. "Right now, it is not."
The longtime judge was appointed in October as director of the city's Department of Public Safety, which makes him the police chief's boss. He quickly began thinking about ways to improve the department's diversity. It is not an easy task. Hiring and keeping quality officers of any race can be difficult as dozens of metro-area law-enforcement agencies compete for applicants. After St. Louis County raised officer salaries last year, city leaders were so worried about mass defections that they scrambled to pass a tax increase to boost their officers' pay, too.
On top of that, attracting minority officers comes with the added hurdle of social issues that have made African Americans across the country wary of law enforcement, Edwards says. "When you are dealing in a society where implicit bias and racism exists you will oftentimes have distrust," he says.
Basic fairness and solid manners make a big difference, says retired St. Louis police Sgt. Clarence Hines.
"The community has no problem with the police holding them accountable — none," he says. "But they have a problem with them not recognizing their humanity, and they have a problem with dishonesty."
In video after video, what they have seen instead are black and brown people beaten, choked and shot by police for minor offenses. "They have a problem with that, and you can't get mad at them for seeing what's in front of them," Hines says.
And diversity isn't enough; black cops, too, can be bad cops. Trying to predict whether someone will make a good officer, Hines says, is similar to following the NFL draft. Sometimes, the top prospect becomes a superstar. "Sometimes they bust," he says.
Policing is like that; there are just too many variables. "You can get five calls for a disturbance, five separate calls for a disturbance, and each one will be uniquely different," Hines says.
A former instructor in the city's police academy, he now teaches a law enforcement unit at North Technical High School in Florissant. (He is also a pastor.) He signed on earlier this year as the coordinator for Ethical's recruiting program. Twice a week, after he finishes up his high school obligations, he heads to the Urban League for the 6 p.m. course.
Both Edwards and Hayden are supporters of Ethical and the program, but Hines would like to see the city make a more tangible commitment. "They ought to be lining up with us, because apparently what they're doing is not working," he says.
Between his teenagers at North Tech, the cadets he taught at the academy and Ethical's new group, Hines has seen just about every kind of aspiring police officer. The flip side of the all-star flame out, he says, is the cadet who scrapes through the academy and turns out to be a natural on the street. He has seen it enough times to know it is foolish to discount a candidate at first glance.
One of the things Ethical hopes to do with its program is provide that second look. Recruits are often in their 30s, changing careers, raising kids of their own. Several enter the program with what Hines calls "dust" on them — minor offenses like speeding tickets or a decade-old conviction for marijuana. Maybe it is evidence of a bigger problem, but maybe it is nothing more than a dumb decision and a lesson learned. Ethical's instructors will interview the recruits and try to determine which it is. A serious offense — anything violent, crimes involving kids or major felonies — is an automatic disqualifier, but if the problems truly are minor, the association might lobby the police chief or public safety director on behalf of an otherwise promising recruit.
"That is not the end of the story," Hines says. "Those things are sometimes reversed."
On the fourth week of the program, the recruits vote Sean Liddell as their class president.
He has emerged as a strong candidate for the academy and police force, which would have seemed strange four years ago. Now 32 years old, Liddell had graduated from college with a sports marketing degree and dreamed of negotiating high-dollar deals as an agent for professional ballplayers. When that seemed out of reach, he set his sights on a career as a school athletic director.
"Law enforcement wasn't on the radar," he says.
All that changed in August 2014 with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. To pay the bills, Liddell had taken a job at the state prison in Pacific where he organized sports and games for inmates and monitored the gym. He remembers checking his phone during a break and seeing the videos of irate neighbors along Canfield Drive waiting for the authorities to remove the eighteen-year-old's dead body. Over the next days and weeks, he watched as the crowds in Ferguson grew. Protesters and cops filled the streets, and soon the world was watching. Ultimately, Liddell would come to believe Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson did not need to kill Brown, but he could not see the point of the destruction during the protests. It just did not seem productive.
"What I did know is if there is some injustice, the only way to fix it is to go inside," he says.
On an impulse, he enrolled in the police academy. In less than two months, he was side by side with 35 other cadets at the city's downtown facility.
He never graduated. Instead, he had to stand in front of his classmates in the spring of 2015 and tell them he was leaving.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," he says.
Liddell says he never really had a plan going in and struggled with the academics and discipline of the program before he was forced to leave. After the academy, he worked as a substitute teacher at an elementary school in north city's Penrose neighborhood. As one of only two men in the building, he says he was often called on to help with discipline. He soon found he had a knack for calming down troubled kids. Invariably, their problems grew out of messy home lives. He remembers a young girl who was acting out in school. Eventually, he learned the girl's mother had made her responsible for raising five siblings, including all the cooking and cleaning.
"She was so tired, she would fall asleep with the door open," Liddell recalls. By the time she got to school, she was frustrated and angry.
It was not so far from his own childhood. Liddell says his mother abused drugs and alcohol, leaving him to wander among the empty lots off Page Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in the Fountain Park neighborhood. One night, when he was eight years old, a relative found him outside alone at 3 a.m. and picked him up. His mother was oblivious.
"I guess when they approached her, she was kind of high from wherever she was the night before," he says. From then on, he was raised by an elderly cousin, and later an aunt. The kids he saw in Penrose, however, did not always have the same safety net. It did not seem like the teachers and school were equipped to help much, either.
Liddell decided to take another shot at police work. He applied for an opening in University City, where he and his wife had moved.
"I didn't make the cut, but I was offered to start in communications," he says.
The dispatcher position seemed like a foot in the door; it has been good training to try to calm frantic callers with words alone. But he still wants to be a cop. That dream has never left him.
In late April, about a dozen of Ethical's recruits circle around Mama Cat on a sidewalk in the shadow of Christ Church in Downtown West.
"We don't feed the homeless," she tells them. "We fellowship with the family."
Mama Cat (real name: Cathy Daniels) has become one of the most recognizable figures at protests around St. Louis. It began in Ferguson when she spotted a group of young men camped out on the protest lines and asked what she could do to help them. "A home-cooked meal wouldn't hurt nothing," one of them said. A trained chef, Daniels returned with spaghetti, and she has been feeding protesters ever since. She now has a nonprofit — PotBangerz — and the recipients of her home cooking are more likely to be people living in shelters and on the streets than activists. This evening, she and the recruits will be walking the community, handing out food.
"You're going to see," she says. "Everybody is different. Everybody is their self, so we just need to love on our people."
For weeks, Ethical's instructors have been trying to hammer home the idea that this is the real work: connecting with people, helping out. On the program's very first night, Detective John Leggette warned the recruits, "If you are not here to serve, hit one of those doors." Somewhere along the way, the police officers with Ethical worry, that ideal has been lost by many cops.
The problems are nationwide, Taylor notes, as police forces prize and even reward cops for their most violent encounters.
"In this culture of law enforcement, it's cool," Taylor says. "You win awards for use of force. You become Officer of the Year. You don't become Officer of the Year for engaging someone who is mentally ill and homeless with a knife, and taking him down or her down without killing them. You don't win awards for helping people with finding housing, clothing — things we do on a regular basis."
Taylor and Ethical have been sharp critics of heavy-handed policing, publicly speaking out about sexism, racism and corruption in law enforcement. As other police organizations circled the wagons in the face of a rising protest movement, Ethical has taken their fellow officers to task.
There is perhaps no clearer example than the case of Jason Stockley, who was indicted in 2016 on a murder charge for killing Anthony Lamar Smith five years earlier. Stockley, who was fired after the fatal shooting for carrying an unauthorized Draco AK-47 on the job, had the full support of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the city's main police union. The union even announced a vote of "no confidence" in then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, claiming she was pandering to activists.
Ethical, however, saw Stockley as a rogue cop. Taylor and Hudson even filmed a short video, explaining why Stockley should be found guilty. He was not. Months of protests followed his acquittal, and when police responded with tear gas and violent mass arrests, Ethical again called out the department.
"If you're wrong you're wrong," Taylor often says when asked about calls to hold fellow officers accountable. (Of the Police Officers Association, she says, "They will say they represent us all and they will stand up for all officers, but the reality is we had some officers who were members of the POA who didn't get fair representation. So we had to step up and fight for them. It wasn't them. It was us." Of the fact that Ethical is a separate association for black officers, she says, "You think about why we have separate associations — we need them.")
Chief Hayden was promoted after the ugliest days of the protests were over, but he was still on the ground as a lieutenant colonel to witness many confrontations. At times, he and other black officers were singled out for standing on the side of a police force that protesters say has hurt minorities.
But Hayden says officers often empathize with issues raised by demonstrators, even as they work to keep the peace.
"I think in some ways, protesters thought I was the biggest traitor for trying to uphold public safety while also addressing some of the issues they're protesting," he says.
Now that he is chief, he is trying close that divide. As a commander, he famously brought a card table and chair to crime hot spots, calling it his "mobile office." It let him hear directly from neighbors about problems on their blocks.
Hayden is now instructing all his captains to come up with their own plans and schedules for community engagement events. He has also created a diversity council within the department and made plans for more service projects.
Taylor is optimistic about Hayden. He has a reputation as being a fair man who keeps his promises. Showing up for the association's opening class was also a good sign.
The visit with Mama Cat is designed to be the kind of non-confrontational interaction the chief has applauded. That night in April, after the recruits hand out about a half-dozen dinners in clam-shell takeout containers to people hanging around Christ Church, they climb into vans headed for Biddle House, the city's primary homeless shelter. It is one of the first nice evenings of spring, and the group finds dozens of people outside Biddle.
Taylor grabs a handful of zippered pink pouches that are packed with hygiene products and holds them up. "For the ladies," she calls out. "For the ladies." Liddell, who has managed to stretch his dinner break to be here, walks through with a laundry basket full of water bottles while other recruits pass out more clam shells.
Ron Joseph, 49, snags one of the last meals before another round arrives. "I'm thankful," he says with a smile.
Still, his demeanor darkens when he learns his hosts tonight are cops (and possibly future cops). He doesn't want anything do with the police, he says, before softening just a bit at the prospect of influencing a new generation of officers. "I think it might help their empathy."
From Biddle, the recruits head north to the old Cass Bank and Trust Company building. Over the years, people have forced open boarded-up doors and moved inside, while others set up campsites in the shadows of an overhang.
Daniels greets a few familiar faces, and then falls into conversation with recruit Andre Hollwell. The aspiring police officer and the veteran protester have a number of things in common, including the Navy. Daniels' husband retired from the service, and Hollwell served four years before his discharge in 2013. A year from now, Hollwell and Daniels could be on opposite sides of a protest line, but Daniels leaves the evening encouraged by what she saw in the recruits.
"They're going to be amazing," she says. "I saw a lot of compassion. I saw some determination to change some things."
On the evening of May 15, Heather Taylor adjusts strands of black and gold balloons inside the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club in the Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood.
Seventeen of Ethical's recruits will graduate from the program tonight. It's a good percentage of the two dozen or so who began the course, but not all seventeen will become police officers. Taylor and the other instructors estimate they have ten or twelve solid candidates for the city police academy. The others have items on their records or other issues that will keep them out. (For anyone who does not make the academy, Ethical promises to help steer them toward other law-enforcement jobs, possibly in civilian roles.)
Liddell arrives with his wife, Brittany, and 22-month-old son, Liam. As class president, he will deliver a speech. He has shaved off his goatee, and his hair is trimmed close.
The instructors count him among the dozen or so viable candidates for the academy, but there is a problem. During the routine psychological exam, an evaluator flagged him for more testing. Liddell took a follow-up written exam — 350 multiple-choice questions — and was told he did not pass. He cannot understand why. Four years ago, he passed the evaluation without issue.
The instructors are also perplexed, but they are not quite as surprised. Taylor describes the current psych evaluation as "archaic" and says it is under review by the city after Ethical raised concerns about it. She says the process has repeatedly knocked out qualified candidates, especially black candidates. Liddell is a good example, she says. He has attended every class, interacted with all the instructors and proven himself a reliable leader.
"We've been with him for ten weeks versus you coming into someone's house and talking with them for two hours," Taylor says.
Hayden has said he is willing to look at recruits on a case-by-case basis, but he is not making any promises. "I've been certainly open to reconsideration for minor concerns, but I have been careful to make sure they're not major concerns," the chief says. "We have to uphold standards."
Edwards has also agreed to consider good candidates tripped up by small mistakes. He says he is a fan of Ethical's program. He was an invited speaker for one of the classes, and spent more than an hour with the recruits. But he hesitates when asked if the city would restore some of the program's funding in the future. "I might be wrong, but I don't believe I've received a formal request for support."
Instead, he has been focusing on a different program that he thinks could build a large new talent pool. At his direction, the city will roll out a cadet program in July. The plan is to enroll 300 people, ages eighteen through twenty. They will spend four hours a day training with police, and unlike Ethical's recruits, they will be paid — $13 an hour for eighteen-year-olds and $15 an hour for older cadets.
"We have to sell the job," he says. "We have to convince kids this is a perfect fit."
Edwards wants to create a pipeline from high school to the police academy. And while applicants of any race or ethnicity can join, the goal is to recruit more minorities. "My hope is to recruit people who are from St. Louis, who love St. Louis and who really, really want to be a police officer," he says.
Taylor says Edwards' cadet program could be a good thing if handled correctly. But she is still hopeful the city will provide real backing for the association's recruiting program. She believes its efforts are already paying off. Including tonight's graduates, Ethical expects to have placed 50 or more of its trainees in law-enforcement jobs since 2015. Class of 2018 recruit Tajon Bastain, 21, has already been hired by the St. Louis Sheriff's Office. Officers from its two earlier classes are now coming back to the program to help teach newcomers.
But it is not easy. The small issues that hold back candidates — speeding tickets, unpaid taxes, poor public school education — vary from person to person. It is only through personal attention that Ethical helps them succeed. Even on graduation night, the instructors pull aside recruits to check in on their various applications. Sgt. Jason Love, speaking to the class, implores all the candidates to keep calling him and letting him know how things progress.
"We're going to fight for you until there is no more fighting to be done," he says.
Liddell takes the microphone for his speech and reminds his classmates about all the work they have put in and all the work ahead of them.
"Be sure to continue to promote change," he says, "not only with your words, but with your actions."
A week after the ceremony, the new graduates are working toward the academy. Interviews are underway with police department recruiters. Psychological and physical-fitness tests are being taken.
Hollwell, the ex-serviceman, finishes an overnight shift at RB Manufacturing at 6:15 a.m. and arrives at 9 a.m. at the police academy for his physical-fitness test. Inside, he spots two other graduates from the Ethical program.
He has been training three days per week, running sprints interspersed with sets of pushups and jumping jacks. When it's his turn, he kills the obstacle course in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute faster than the cutoff time. The others from the program pass, too.
Hollwell will grab some food and try to sleep a little before his next shift at the factory, but he is dreaming of a new life in the department. He has already written up his two weeks' notice. "I'm just waiting to fill in the date."
Ethical's next recruiting program begins in August, but the instructors are still wrapping things up with the newly graduated class. Taylor plans to spend the weekend typing up letters of recommendation. But she will have one fewer letter to write. Liddell is withdrawing.
The class president had previously submitted an application to the St. Louis County Police Department, and he has gotten good news. A county recruiter who attended the opening night of Ethical's program dug up that old application and kept an eye on him as the course continued. In late May, a week after the graduation ceremony, Liddell learned he has been accepted into the county's police academy. Apparently he passed its psych evaluation just fine.
He will be a new cadet by the end of June. It was not the plan he set out for himself in February, much less four years ago, but he is here now. He could be a police officer by December. "I'm just ready to get out on the street," he says.