The following letter was written on January 24, 2019 after I participated in an interview in consideration for membership on the Police Community Engagement Board for the city of Webster Groves, MO. I was interviewed for this position by the Mayor and members of the City Council for the city of Webster Groves. The letter was submitted to a local newspaper for publication on January 24 but was not published. I am posting the letter on my website in order to share my experiences from that night.
I was recently reminded what it feels like to be an outsider. St. Louis and its various municipalities are extremely provincial, especially as it relates to talking about law enforcement and who gets invited to the table to fully participate in the conversations involving police. I was reminded that if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the powers that be, you will clearly be treated like an outsider who doesn’t belong and whose opinion isn’t valued.
Recently, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by the mayor and city council for Webster Groves, MO in consideration of a position on their newly formed Police Community Engagement Board. The Board will be made up of seven members, five who reside within Webster Groves and two who don’t live in that city but bring a certain level of expertise related to police—community relationships.
I initially wasn’t going to apply for a position on the board because I don’t live in Webster Groves, but I received multiple unsolicited phone calls and emails encouraging me to apply because two positions on the board will be occupied by non-residents. I was advised that my position as pastor of a church within Webster Groves, my experience as a former police officer, and my extensive ongoing research and publishing which focuses on how to improve areas of police—community relations would likely be a valuable addition to the board.
Prior to the interview, I was invited by various community members to participate in multiple meetings with other clergy who serve congregations in Webster Groves. The meetings were to discuss the mayor and city council’s decision to hire Neil Bruntrager as the attorney for the city of Webster Groves. The decision to hire Mr. Bruntrager was met with both approval and substantial push back from the community. The meetings were to discuss strategy to help community members understand the process that led to the hiring, as well as practice a certain level of transparency so community members understood the decision was made for practical reasons.
During the first meeting, multiple clergy members expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Mr. Bruntrager as city attorney. Their displeasure was understandable. Mr. Bruntrager has the distinction of successfully defending Darren Wilson and Jason Stockley, two police officers who killed black citizens. Clergy explained that his employment by the city could represent something extremely negative to multiple groups of people who reside in Webster Groves, the least not being African Americans who already don’t believe their voices are being heard by the mayor and city council and also believe that they are treated differently than their white neighbors by Webster police officers.
During those meetings with clergy, I never personally spoke out against any person involved in the decision to hire Mr. Bruntrager. Instead, I spoke positively about Mr. Bruntrager’s qualifications as an attorney and the fact that he twice represented me, an African American, when I was a police officer for the City of St. Louis. Although I personally had no problem with Mr. Bruntrager’s hire, I did question the decision to retain him in light of the fact that the decision would be viewed negatively by multiple constituents who live in, and associate with, Webster Groves and that his hiring could be perceived as a slight to those people.
I also questioned whether Mr. Bruntrager’s hiring would negatively influence the culture of policing in Webster Groves. Like other people, I have had negative experiences with Webster Groves officers. I have talked about those experiences publicly on my radio program Communities Forward, as well as in articles I have been interviewed for. I stated that my concern is that, although Mr. Bruntrager doesn’t represent the police department or its officers, and instead works only on issues related to the operation of the city itself, whether officers would view his hiring as a sign that the mayor and council members were sending them a signal that they were behind them. I have never accused Webster’s leadership of doing this, but only stated that this hiring could be perceived in that way.
When I was finally able to be interviewed by the mayor and city council members, it didn’t go well. It occurred at their bi-weekly council meeting. From the beginning it felt like a “cattle call.” Police Community Engagement Board applicants were asked to stand at the table where council members sat and, within a few minutes, tell them why we wanted to be on the board. In summary, my response was that I have spent several years working to help citizens and police officers work better together, help citizens understand the challenges that come along with being an officer, and help citizens hold officers accountable when they overstep boundaries of decency and their job descriptions.
My statements were met with what I perceived to be hostility and dismissal. For example, one council member snapped at me that I didn’t understand what the responsibilities of the Police Community Engagement Board were. Another member asked why I quit being a St. Louis police officer. That person knew the answer to the question before it was asked. When I stated that I left due to regularly experiencing officers who were more concerned about protecting the system of policing that was in place before protecting the citizens they were hired to serve, the body language from most council members sitting at the table made it clear that they had no desire to hear anything else I planned on saying. I stepped away from the table frustrated, and somewhat confused. I felt like I was being dismissed and told that I was an outsider who didn’t fit what they wanted for the board.
The process and atmosphere quickly and clearly changed after I took my seat. Several other people were interviewed after me and everyone one of them was greeted and interacted with pleasantly and respectfully, whether black, white, young, or old. I again thought I was being too sensitive to what I had just experienced. I had been in multiple prior meetings with several of the people at the table. I have never spoken ill of them or their leadership. I’ve never attacked any of them personally or professionally. I previously interviewed the mayor for my Communities Forward radio program, and that interview positively highlighted her extensive leadership experience. I have welcomed other council members into the church where I serve and we engaged in sometimes tense, but always positive, conversations. What did I say wrong? The only thing I could think was that I have publicly critiqued decisions they have made. And that may have been the nail in the coffin.
After I left the meeting, I continued to run the events through my mind, thinking of ways that I could have spoken more clearly or succinctly. Maybe that would have caused the interaction to go better. Then I received an unsolicited email from a person that attended the meeting who I’ve never met that affirmed my suspicions of that night’s events. This person expressed the same dismay I was feeling. They also thought that the mayor and council members had been rude, dismissive, antagonistic, and treated me like I was an outsider that didn’t belong at the table. The person noticed that only a few council members actually looked at me as I spoke, and that the others looked like they either wanted to be somewhere else or that they wanted me to be somewhere else.
Until I hear differently from someone at that table, I can only think that my experience was based on the fact that I have publicly spoken out about the impact of hiring Mr. Bruntrager as the city attorney. My experience begs the question, is the only way a person will be allowed at the table in Webster Groves to help with the discussions of police—community relations for them to co-sign every decision made by the powers that be and only speak positively about police? Questioning decisions made by leadership doesn’t mean that I disagree with or oppose their decisions. It means that I’m trying to think through the big picture and how multiple people may be affected by one decision and how that decision may affect the relationships of people who live in that community.
I have to emphatically say I’m not against the leaders of Webster Groves. I’m actually very supportive of them and was excited for the opportunity to participate in the board. So much so that in my next book on policing, Police on a Pedestal: Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship, I dedicated an entire chapter to outlining the process that the Alliance for Interracial Dignity and city council enacted to bring about the board. I then highlighted that process as a model for other cities to emulate to improve relationships between city officials, police, and citizens.
Although I have been supportive of them, I also realize that I just may not be one of the right people to have on the board. If I don’t represent the best interests of the citizens who live in the City of Webster Groves, I shouldn’t occupy a seat at the table. But, if my experience at the council meeting was because I didn’t play the game and keep quiet about what I understand are some of the blind spots within the process to hire Mr. Bruntrager, or because I’ve made it my practice to publicly point out the consistent flaws within modern policing, or because I was willing to critique a leader’s decision, that’s unacceptable.
In the end, this critique has less to do with me and more to do with the type of board that the leaders of Webster Groves are trying to shape. What type of members does the board need to be made of so that it can affect positive change in that community? Will it be made up of people who follow a particular party line or way of thinking and acting that has been prominent in Webster Groves for years, which is what has led to the need for this board in the first place, or will it be made up of people who will be allowed, better yet encouraged, to address real problems head on? Will it be made up of people who support the status quo, or people who will work to make the board all that it can be? The people have spoken. They want change. The question is whether or not leadership is listening?