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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Mama Cat, center, prepares recruits to hand out meals outside Christ Church Cathedral. - DOYLE MURPHY
DOYLE MURPHY
Mama Cat, center, prepares recruits to hand out meals outside Christ Church Cathedral.

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.

Sean Liddell hands out water outside of Biddle House, the city's primary homeless shelter. - DOYLE MURPHY
DOYLE MURPHY
Sean Liddell hands out water outside of Biddle House, the city's primary homeless shelter.

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."

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