Posted by John Eligon | 26 November 2019 | 707 times
Although they all wear blue, white officers and black officers experience strained relations in St. Louis’s Police Department.
Promotional disputes, incendiary remarks and outright harassment have led to troubled racial dynamics for St. Louis police officers.
Milton Green was in the driveway of his home on St. Louis’s North Side one night when he suddenly found the barrel of a gun pointed in his direction. Right away, his police training kicked in: He pulled a badge from beneath his T-shirt and grabbed ahold of his service weapon, a 9-millimeter Beretta.
“Police! Put the gun down!” Mr. Green shouted to the man with the gun, who had been fleeing the police when the car he was riding in crashed in front of Mr. Green’s red brick bungalow.
Mr. Green’s shift as a community liaison officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department had ended hours earlier, and he was spending a quiet evening helping a friend work on his pickup truck. Then a sedan came screeching around the corner and ended up near his front yard. Another sedan pulled up in a hurry, and Mr. Green felt a brief sense of ease when men in police vests hopped out. They were fellow officers. Sort of.
Mr. Green had been a police officer for more than a decade. And while he had bonded with colleagues across the department, he also had come to see distinct differences between black officers like himself and white officers like those involved in the pursuit that night. He had heard his share of racially insensitive remarks at work, but on that balmy evening in 2017, Mr. Green’s outlook on the differences between black and white officers would be damaged beyond repair.
He heard a bang. He felt a sting in his right forearm. A white colleague had shot him.
How America’s biggest battles are playing out on the local level.
Police departments confront the same racial tensions within their ranks as those in the communities they patrol. New recruits enter the police academy with different backgrounds and biases. Cliques develop within the force. And officers’ identical badges cannot shield the bad blood that sometimes exists among them.
In few places is the racial divide more evident than St. Louis, a Mississippi River city of more than 300,000 residents. Delmar Boulevard runs like a Mason-Dixon line separating the predominantly black North Side from the rest of the city, which has an almost even racial split of about 47 percent black residents and 43 percent white residents. The department’s racial tensions have bubbled to the surface this year after Mr. Green filed a lawsuit over the summer airing grievances about his treatment as a black officer. The department is also bracing for the federal criminal trial of two white officers accused of beating a black colleague and the outcome of an internal investigation into dozens of bigoted social media posts made by officers.
Interviews with 18 current and former members of the city’s Police Department reveal a troubling picture of the racial dynamics on the force. Promotional disputes, incendiary remarks and outright harassment have left a trail of crippled trust and deflated morale, even as interracial friendships among officers are not uncommon.
On the night Mr. Green was shot, he said, he did what he thought he had to: He sprang into action when he saw an armed man on the run. As he confronted the suspect, though, he heard someone order him to drop his weapon. Mr. Green tossed down his gun and belly-flopped onto the grass. A white detective recognized him a few moments later and warned the others that Mr. Green was a police officer, too.
Milton Green, a retired St. Louis police officer, said he was holding out his badge when he was shot in his arm by a white colleague.
Milton Green, a retired St. Louis police officer, said he was holding out his badge when he was shot in his arm by a white colleague.Credit...Whitney Curtis for The New York Times
Mr. Green got up and ambled toward the detective who knew him, his gun pointed down in his right hand. He held out his badge so there would be no confusion. He had grown up on the city’s North Side and had been stopped plenty of times by the police for no good reason before he had gotten his badge, he said.
He took a few steps and then again heard a voice yell for him to drop his weapon, followed almost immediately, he said, by a gunshot. He clutched his right forearm and looked over at the white officer who had shot him.
“Man, you done shot me,” Mr. Green recalled saying before blood started spouting from his arm. He became weak and dropped to his knees.
Told of Mr. Green’s account, the officer who shot him, Christopher Tanner, said in a brief telephone interview, “That’s definitely not what happened.”
Mr. Tanner, who has since left the department, declined to elaborate, citing a pending lawsuit that Mr. Green filed against him and the city. Mr. Tanner’s lawyer, James P. Towey Jr., also declined to provide details. But he said that his client had been involved in a rolling gun battle that evening. Things were chaotic.
“It was a very highly charged environment and things happened as they did,” Mr. Towey said. “I don’t think race played one iota into this.”
Mr. Green disagrees.
“Me being black with a gun, you never gave me the chance,” Mr. Green said of Mr. Tanner. “You wouldn’t have walked up to a white guy and just shot him like that.”
In St. Louis, few officers seem eager to talk openly about race for fear of upsetting the “blue bond.” When black officers feel offended by the comments or actions of their white colleagues, they often do not tell them. Similarly, some white officers say they grow resentful when black colleagues suggest there is racism within the department. Both black and white officers have said their race has been used against them when it comes to promotions.
“There is still quite a bit of racial tension in the department,” acknowledged Col. John W. Hayden Jr., the police commissioner, who is black and a three-decade veteran of the department. “The tension continues because people are expecting more out of each other and they’re not tolerant, nor should they be, of things that are insensitive.”
Opinions in the department have been split over an encounter that happened a few months after Mr. Green was shot: A black officer working undercover at a protest was beaten by white officers so badly that the injured officer told a commander, using an expletive, that they beat him “like Rodney King.”
That officer, Luther Hall, had been monitoring a demonstration held in downtown St. Louis to protest the acquittal of a white officer who had fatally shot a black resident. While Mr. Hall’s face was bloodied, his partner, who was white, was not beaten, according to a lawsuit.
Federal prosecutors indicted four white officers in connection with the beating and an attempt to cover it up. Two of the officers have pleaded guilty in the case; the other two are scheduled to go on trial in December.
That was not the last of the alarming incidents.
The department is investigating nearly two dozen officers for a series of incendiary Facebook posts, some of them racist and bigoted, uncovered by the Plain View Project.
One of those officers was Michael J. Calcaterra. One meme he posted in 2013 said, “Britain should not bend over backwards to accommodate Islam.” Another one shows a white officer throwing a punch and says “I’m going to protect and serve,” adding an expletive.
In July, after the posts had been made public, Leviya Graham, a black officer, filed a complaint with the department. She asked officials to transfer Officer Calcaterra, who is white, out of her unit because she had concerns for her well-being and safety.
Three months after filing her complaint, Officer Graham accused Officer Calcaterra of striking her with a police vehicle while they were on duty. Officer Calcaterra did not respond to a phone message.
“I can’t say whether it was intentional or not but it warrants investigation,” said Sgt. Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police, an organization started decades ago to represent black officers in the St. Louis region. “Our membership is concerned.”
White officers are not oblivious to the realities of race, said Thomas Lake, a white former sergeant who retired this year. They largely believe that they are acting on experience, not bias, he said. Mr. Lake recalled the time he wrestled two black men over a pistol.
“Did it make me biased toward black men? No,” he said. “But what it did do is it made me more cautious around them.”
Even as he said that race did not play a big role within the department, Mr. Lake grappled with the uncomfortable, contradictory feelings the topic evoked in him.
He agreed that there were times when bias led officers to act improperly, but that was the exception, he said. He and other white officers pointed to poor training or panic, rather than race, as the main explanation for potential misconduct.
“I’m not a black officer and I haven’t grown up in the same experiences as some of them have,” Mr. Lake said.
“Then again, some of them haven’t grown up in the same experiences I’ve had.”
Mr. Green, 40, said he never wanted to let race define his experience as a police officer. Like most black officers, he paid dues to both the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the traditional union typically called the “white union,” and the Ethical Society of Police, commonly referred to as the “black union.”
Much like the city it serves, the 1,300-member department is predominantly black and white; it has few officers of other races or Hispanic officers. But at two-thirds of the force, white officers are overrepresented in comparison with the city’s population, while black officers, at 30 percent, are underrepresented.
In the beige brick headquarters that span a downtown block, officers of all backgrounds work side by side.
They celebrate with recruits when they graduate by jogging a mile from the academy to the city’s iconic arch. When colleagues are injured or killed in the line of duty, regardless of their race, the department comes together. Two years ago, officers started an annual “unity party,” intended to bring people of all races together.
Each of the department’s three patrol divisions has two captains — one black, one white.
That even split might not be a coincidence, some say. The department has tried over the years to diversify its leadership. It has not always gone over well.
More than two decades ago, white officers successfully challenged an affirmative action program that they said promoted less-qualified black candidates over them. In recent years, two white officers — a sergeant and a major — each won hundreds of thousands of dollars following lawsuits in which they claimed they were passed over for promotions in favor of less-qualified African-Americans.
A black captain got $1.1 million in a settlement with the city this year after he claimed racial discrimination in his firing. Three African-American sergeants are currently suing the department, saying they were denied promotions in part because of their race.
“It is toxic,” said Sergeant Taylor, one of the plaintiffs who claims she was wrongfully denied a promotion. “We have these warring sides that believe they have been wronged.”
After Mr. Green was shot, other officers on the scene scolded Mr. Tanner for firing at his colleague, said Mr. Green, who retired with disability this year. Fellow officers ushered Mr. Green into a police van and raced him to a hospital.
By then, his faith that white officers could treat black people fairly was gone. He would later tell his children that they needed to be extra careful with white officers.
Colonel Hayden, the police commissioner, said he hoped to introduce training that would encourage officers to have more direct conversations about race.
In the cases of Mr. Green and Mr. Hall, Colonel Hayden said he believed that the use of force was unjustified. The role that race played, he said, was harder to say.
“You hate to believe,” he said, “that it only happened because they were African-American.” (NewYorkTimes)
No comments yet. Be the first to post comment.