Activists Seek To Improve Community-Police Relations In St. Louis Area

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. -- Amid broader discussions about improving police tactics across the country, a local Missouri group is working with a national police research organization to take a look at the problems specific to policing in the St. Louis region.

Over the past several weeks, the local organization Better Together and the Police Executive Research Forum have organized four town hall meetings throughout the St. Louis region, hoping to improve relations between communities and police in the area. Information from the town halls will be incorporated into a study, conducted jointly by the two groups, about the "'ideal' policing solution for the St. Louis region," according to Better Together's website. The groups expect to issue a report by April.

Better Together was established in late 2013 to promote better community relationships with municipal governments in St. Louis County. The group has been focusing on policing issues since before unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, although Better Together has intensified its push for reform since Brown's death in August. Brown's killing sparked months of protests that called attention to policing problems in the larger St. Louis region.

Brooke Foster, communications director for Better Together, says the organization wanted to give respect to Brown's family while completing its study. "We were going to do the work regardless. It's just the events in Ferguson attracted more attention to our research," Foster said.

The Police Executive Research Forum is an independent research group that focuses on policing issues. Better Together reached out to PERF to help produce a report about the future of community-police relations in the St. Louis area.

During the town hall discussions, residents talked about experiences they'd had with police. Many people wanted a better relationship with their local police departments and asked how police could be held more accountable for their actions.

One issue that received attention was the difference in approach between the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which covers the entire city, and the multitude of small police departments in St. Louis County. Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, asked town hall attendees to elaborate on the differences.

Ferguson Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes explained the perceived dynamic. “There’s a joke we say here. It’s that only the St. Louis County police that will harass you because the St. Louis City police are too busy dealing with real crime,” Bynes said during the third town hall, held on Jan. 14 inside a church in Ferguson.

Much of the discussion focused on the municipal courts system in St. Louis County. Many of the tiny towns in the county depend on fines and fees to survive, and several have allegedly violated a state law that is meant to limit the percentage of a city's revenue that can come from fines and fees. Residents of St. Louis County have complained that the structure incentivizes police departments to give out unnecessary tickets, and Wexler seemed to agree that this was a problem.

“There are parts of this region that are stopping people for -- excuse my language -- bullshit reasons for revenue,” said Wexler during the fourth and final town hall, which took place on Jan. 15 in University City.

Several police officers from the region attended some of the meetings, including recently promoted St. Louis County Officer Lt. Troy Doyle. “In order to be better, we have to listen to the people," Doyle told The Huffington Post when asked why he came to the meeting. "We’re not going to know what people want, if we don’t listen.”

Col. Frank Mininni, police chief for the city of Normandy, echoed Doyle's sentiments. Mininni, who attended the final town hall meeting, said police officers needed to stop living in a “bubble of police culture.”

“If you can’t get outside that bubble and learn what people want and how people would like to be policed, you’re not doing a service to community or the police department. And you’re really setting up a lose-lose situation for the community to work in,” Mininni said.

Many participants said that they thought police did not know their communities and were fearful of nonviolent residents. But Mininni said his department has seen success with a policing style known as the “area policing initiative," which he described as an approach that increases police officers' involvement with their community.

“It’s not about traffic tickets. It’s not about heavy-handed enforcement, it’s about a relationship. In the city of Normandy, we go to schools, we teach there. We go there to eat lunch with the kids, we play with them at recess,” Mininni said.

While the final town hall discussion was taking place, a nearby incident underscored the continuing tensions over police tactics in the area. Just a few minutes away from the meeting, even as residents talked about improving relations between the community and police, 22-year-old Joseph Swink was mistakenly arrested and beaten by St. Ann police officers.

Wexler tried to keep the discussions focused on policing, but noted that the conversations constantly expanded to other areas. “It starts out as one thing and it evolves into something much larger,” he acknowledged to the crowd.

“I think we had a very honest conversation. Four town halls, four different parts of this area, all been different, all been interesting, all been important. I think that’s what we’re really trying to do, is get a slice of every part of this region,” Wexler told HuffPost.

After interviewing over 300 people, and listening to people share their experiences, Wexler suggested that the main issue with policing is respect. “It’s not like I haven’t heard these stories before, I’ve worked in the Middle East and I’ve worked in Northern Ireland, and so much of this is about respect," he said.

"There’s a lot of tension from both sides. Through these sessions we can begin to see the future,” Wexler added.