- REBECCA RIVAS/MISSOURI INDEPENDENT
- Ferguson protest leader Brittany Ferrell helped gather people together to chant, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” during a protest in South St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014. The chant is based on a quote by Black Power activist Assata Shakur. Before leading the chant, Activist Ashley Yates told the group, “We know Black lives matter, and we know that we must fight to prove that.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent. It is part one of a collaboration between The Missouri Independent and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting looking at how the fight for police reform in St. Louis has evolved. Part two publishes Thursday. Subscribe to the Reveal podcast to hear the audio version of this story when it’s released on Saturday.
Ten days after Michael Brown, it was 25-year-old Kajieme Powell. Two months later, it was 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr. All in the St. Louis region.
Had it not been for the Ferguson uprising, the deaths of these Black men would have likely gone unnoticed, except for a small, dedicated group of activists who have been tracking police shootings since the 1960s.
They’d long been troubled by the local police’s treatment of Black residents and its culture of impunity, the opaque investigations and the often mind-boggling conclusions — such as the finding that the killing of 25-year-old Cary Ball Jr., shot 25 times at close range in 2013, was justified.
After Brown’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, the activists saw an opening.
They began drafting legislation to create a Civilian Oversight Board that would review the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s internal investigations into officers accused of excessive force, abuse of authority and discrimination. The group of seven city residents would also scrutinize the department’s investigations into officer-involved shootings and killings.
They’d gotten this bill passed in 2006, but the mayor had vetoed it.
This time, the reformers had some powerful new supporters — Ferguson protest leaders.
For months after Ferguson, people were marching to City Hall and shutting down busy intersections almost daily, demanding police reform. Young, Black Ferguson frontliners chanting into bullhorns were soon joined by people who’d never protested before — teens marching alongside their teachers, mothers wheeling babies in strollers.
This time, the mayor not only refrained from opposing the bill, he added his name as a co-sponsor.
The Civilian Oversight Board bill passed April 20, 2015. Exactly six years later, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd; that same day, criminal justice reformer Tishaura Jones was inaugurated as St. Louis’ mayor, becoming the first African American woman to lead the city.
While the young Ferguson activists cheered at the bill’s final vote, many of the longtime Black activists — who had been advocating to pass this legislation for three decades — were more sedate.
“I was almost moved to tears, even though I know there is a hard road ahead of us,” said Jamala Rogers, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, who helped write the bill.
Since 2015, St. Louis police officers have shot 53 people, killing 27 of them, according to the Police Department. Yet the Civilian Oversight Board hasn’t reviewed a single one of those cases. And the Police Department has withheld nearly all of the complaints it receives against officers, leaving the board unable to fulfill its basic function.
“We don’t know what the nature of the complaint was,” said Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the oversight board’s commissioner. “We don’t know who it was against. We don’t know any of that information about any of those complaints.”
It’s been more than six years since Brown’s killing made St. Louis the epicenter of the most promising civil rights movement since the 1960s. Yet despite stacks of studies and seemingly unprecedented public support for change, St. Louis has not seen a single substantive victory for police reform, thanks in large part to an influential police union and a larger police apparatus that has stymied accountability.
Today, St. Louis continues to have the highest number of police shootings per capita in the nation and is home to a roiling public showdown over racism in policing.
The trajectory of the Civilian Oversight Board shows just how difficult it is to reform police departments from the outside, in St. Louis and across the United States.
But the challenges for the board and the hurdles faced by a long list of other police reforms have also provided a revolutionary lesson to the new generation of activists who came of age during Ferguson. They’re leading a new movement, one being watched around the nation, with a more ambitious agenda for confronting structural racism: Rather than trying to push reform from the outside, they’re audaciously taking control of the city’s institutions from the inside.
As a 24-year-old, Kayla Reed threw herself into activism after Brown’s killing, eventually becoming one of the reform movement’s leaders. In the beginning, she hunted down solutions to the problems she saw in each individual case of police brutality. And she quickly saw every reform she pushed for fail to fix anything.
“In Mike Brown’s case, there was no camera. And so people asked for body cameras. The officers were white. So people asked for more diversity,” she said. “There was no consequence for the officers. So people asked for a civilian oversight. But each of those solutions — more training, diversity, cameras, civilian oversight — only add more money to the police and can be derailed or controlled by the police union.”
Jones’ ascension to the mayor’s office stands as the movement’s crowning victory and is already leading to significant changes. Jones’ first executive order tackled the problems at the civilian board head on: She demanded that all complaints against police officers over the last five years be turned over to her office.