Crowd drowns out St. Louis mayor at discussion on police policies

2017-10-12 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Oct. 12--A panel discussion aimed at answering residents' questions about policing and racial equity quickly unraveled Wednesday night as a crowd shouted accusations of inaction at St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

One man repeatedly shouted "How long do we have to wait?" as the mayor attempted to respond to questions and complaints.

People packed a 995-seat auditorium at Harris-Stowe State University to hear Krewson, state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., Ethical Society of Police President Sgt. Heather Taylor and Forward Through Ferguson member David Dwight discuss ways to improve the public's trust in city police.

The panel hosted by St. Louis Young Democrats came weeks after demonstrators began calling for police reform following the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in the fatal shooting of drug suspect Anthony Lamar Smith.

Taylor condemned Stockley's not-guilty verdict, calling the verdict "ridiculous" and Stockley's actions "irresponsible."

She said the department needed to be accountable for its actions and focus on building trust with certain communities. Work, she said, begins internally.

Forward Through Ferguson -- a nonprofit group formed to put in place the changes proposed by the Ferguson Commission in the wake of the protests that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown -- and dozens of other community groups have put forward seven policy areas that call for police and court reform including theestablishing a use-of-force database, eliminating the use of militarized weapons by police departments, creating civilian review boards, and reforming punishments for minor offenses and civil violations.

Krewson said during the panel Wednesday that her office supports some aspects of the group's policy suggestions, including independent investigations of police use of force, developing community policing standards, especially concerning demonstrations, and a civilian oversight board with subpoena power.

The question of subpoena power -- the authority to compel testimony -- was at the heart of the debate over the creation of the board. Supporters of the idea say the move would give the board more power in investigating complaints against police.

Krewson said the city's search for a permanent police chief continues. But Franks said he believed the search should be for a public safety director instead.

"My only mission is to bring power back to the people and dismantle systemic racism," Franks said.

The city's police department has come under scrutiny in recent weeks over its use of a controversial corralling technique called "kettling," where more than 100 people were arrested in a protest downtown and some said they were kicked and sprayed in the face with pepper spray after their hands were tied behind their backs.

Ultimately, Krewson said her vision was for "a more equitable St. Louis," but her comment was met with resistance from audience members who said they believed she was disinterested in the plight of black families and children.

Many of the mayor's responses were drowned out by calls for the resignation of Interim Police Chief Lawrence O'Toole and accusations that the department practices racial discrimination.

Alderman Christine Ingrassia said on Twitter that her children, who were in the audience with her, saw someone get punched for urging others to let the mayor be heard.

Taylor at one point called for better vetting and training rather than solely focusing on the race of officers. She has been outspoken about racial discrimination in the department.

Franks, often seen among the Stockley protesters, at times tried to interpret audience members' comments about O'Toole or policing. At other points he called for the audience to allow Krewson to speak.

The meeting was the first public forum at which Krewson has appeared since the Stockley verdict on Sept. 15. Charges were filed against the ex-officer in 2016, years after local and federal prosecutors had initially declined to prosecute him in the 2011 death of Smith.

Krewson canceled a series of town hall meetings that had been set to take place just after the verdict was announced. She said then that the kinds of comments she would have heard at town hall meetings "are happening in the streets and in my inbox and on social media right now."

The Stockley verdict has set off a series of protests, as have other cases in the St. Louis region and elsewhere that have involved the deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers.

Ebony Williams, who has been among the organizers of protests that have followed the Stockley verdict, expressed doubt that Krewson had wanted to hear from the public.

"No, you didn't want to hear from us, or you wouldn't have canceled those town halls," Williams said of the mayor.

Elise Miller Hoffman, president of the group that sponsored the panel discussion, said afterward that it had provided an important opportunity for the public to come together and speak out.

"There are voices in our community that need to be heard," Hoffman said.

She said she regretted that not all of the panelists, including Krewson, had gotten a chance to pose a question to the others, as planned. When his chance came, Franks yielded his opportunity to a member of the audience.

Neva Sprung, of south St. Louis County, was among those in the crowd.

She said she had taken part in one demonstration at which protesters marched to a Board of Aldermen meeting because she believes white people need to acknowledge that black lives matter.

She said she was impressed with Franks at the protests and with him, Taylor and Dwight at the panel discussion. "I felt bad for the mayor because she truthfully was not in a position to give the direct answers people wanted," Sprung said.

But she maintained that people needed to able to shout and address the mayor. "They needed to say what they were thinking, and she needed to hear their stories," Sprung said.

Nassim Benchaabane of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.