St. Louis' Black Police Union Wants to Transform the SLMPD, One New Officer at a Time

Instructors like Captain Perri Johnson hope to teach new recruits that service is the heart of police work.
Instructors like Captain Perri Johnson hope to teach new recruits that service is the heart of police work. DOYLE MURPHY

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Retired police Sgt. Clarence Hines took over this year as coordinator of the rebooted recruitment program. - DOYLE MURPHY
Retired police Sgt. Clarence Hines took over this year as coordinator of the rebooted recruitment program.

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."

Sean Liddell scrambled between work and home, sometimes bringing son Liam, but never missed a class. - DOYLE MURPHY
Sean Liddell scrambled between work and home, sometimes bringing son Liam, but never missed a class.

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.

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