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St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Messenger: Next St. Louis County police chief needs to end culture of discrimination

Outgoing St. Louis County Police chief Jon Belmar gives an congratulatory elbow bump to newly sworn in police chief Mary Barton after a short ceremony at police headquarters in Clayton on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Photo By David Carson, 

There is symmetry to the beginning and end of Mary Barton’s brief stint as chief of police in St. Louis County.

Barton was named the top cop in the county following the resignation of former Chief Jon Belmar. He had a fall from grace after a jury awarded then-Sgt. Keith Wildhaber $20 million because Belmar wouldn’t promote him to lieutenant because Wildhaber is gay. The award was later reduced in a settlement, and Wildhaber got his promotion.

Belmar retired. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page told people — including me — that Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, who is Black, was his favorite for the position of chief. The county Board of Police Commissioners, with new members appointed by Page, chose Barton, who became the first woman to hold the position.

Doyle, who had recorded Page talking about how he wanted Doyle to have the job, filed a discrimination lawsuit, which is pending. Barton came under fire immediately in her tenure after she told the St. Louis County Council that she didn’t believe there was systemic racism in the department, despite a history of well-documented discrimination against Black officers and recruits.

Not long after that, Barton’s brother-in-law retired from his job as a county dispatcher after allegedly using a racial slur on the police radio. Pressure built for Barton to leave. Political posturing began. So what did Barton do? She filed her own discrimination claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Consequently, the police commission is paying Barton $290,000 to go away.

When the news broke Friday of Barton’s retirement, I found sympathy for her plight from an unlikely source. In 2018, after a decade in the St. Louis County Police Department, Nikki Brown left the force. Brown, who is Black, had filed an EEOC complaint alleging racism and sexism in the police academy, where she had been an instructor. She complained to Belmar, who, in a letter, basically told her he was sorry that at least one fellow instructor was using racial slurs. “Steps have been taken,” to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Belmar told Brown in a letter she received long after she had left.

Brown, who is the sort of officer who St. Louis County should have wanted to rise in its ranks, left for another department. Then she earned a doctorate in higher education leadership. Now she works in education.

That’s what the department she used to work for needs, she told me after she heard of Barton’s retirement: education.

“I can only imagine (Barton) had little to no support, allies or mentoring in that role from within the department,” Brown said. “The police commission wanted to diversify leadership yet without understanding or caring about the dynamics of the culture in the department to support change.”

For too long, the culture of the police department has been to run away from its internal problems, to bury them and spin them in the media, rather than do the heavy lifting of bringing about change. The Wildhaber case is a great example. He was hardly the first person to complain about discrimination in the department, whether related to LGBTQ issues or racial discrimination. At trial, he testified to being given a “geography lesson,” shorthand for punishment through a change in work assignment for officers who complain. According to court testimony, two members of Belmar’s command staff who were involved with executing geography lessons were Doyle and Lt. Col. Kenneth Gregory.

In Barton’s absence, Gregory will be the acting chief, the first Black man to lead the department. In Wildhaber’s case, there was evidence presented that Gregory referred to homosexuality as “an abomination.”

One step forward, two steps back. That’s the dance that keeps getting repeated in a department not truly willing — yet — to address a culture in which discrimination is, well, systemic.

Barton leaving, even with a parting gift, is an opportunity for true change in a department that’s been fighting it for too long. Here’s how the Ethical Society of Police, an organization which represents Black officers, put it in a statement: “We are encouraged by the potential for St. Louis County to continue to break down existing professional barriers with the selection of a chief capable of mending fractured relationships between the department and the community it serves.”

The next chief, whoever they may be, has a serious challenge ahead. So does Page. He fumbled the post-Belmar transition. It’s time to find a chief who can lead the department to a better place.