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Kirkwood agreement looks toward better race relations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Kirkwood City Council voted Thursday night to adopt a mediation agreement committing it to improve its human rights commission and to expand police involvement with young people in the Meacham Park neighborhood. But even before the council voted, some leaders in Meacham Park accused the mediation process of failing to face up to Kirkwood's racial problem.

City and community representatives reached the agreement after a long mediation conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service. The Justice Department offered its services to the city after the Feb. 7, 2008, city hall shootings in which five city officials were killed. The shooter, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, was shot and killed that night by police. Mayor Mike Swoboda was wounded critically and died later that year.  Thornton lived in Meacham Park, a predominantly black neighborhood on the edge of the city.

For links to the mediation agreement go to the city of Kirkwood site: www.kirkwoodmo.org/

The mediation agreement said that it addressed "Meacham Park resident complaints and grievances" with Kirkwood and "residual effects of desegregation and past discriminatory practices." The city committed itself to "improve community spirit, communication and involvement" with a "special emphasis on the minority community."

One of the city's promises is to make major improvements to the Human Rights Advisory and Awareness Commission, which the agreement said, has had "systemic problems that did not enable the HRC to meet the community's expectations." The city promised to look for more experienced appointees to the commission and make changes to improve attendance by commission members. It also promised to develop an "on-line, automated tracking system" to log and process citizen communications.

It stressed, however, that the commission would not be an "investigating or mediating body," nor would it address "employee personnel matters," Kirkwood School District affairs or "matters of private businesses."

The Kirkwood Police Department also made a series of commitments focused on relations with young people in Meacham Park. It will recruit minorities for the Police Explorer Program, work with the police chaplains to fund paid internships for high school students, work with volunteers to find jobs for expelled students and create a local court "to provide a partnership with area youth in the administration of justice by their peers." The agreement described the new court, under the leadership of Police Chief Jack Plummer, as the most ambitious of the programs and said it would require the cooperation of the St. Louis County Family Court.

In addition, the police department promised to improve the process for filing complaints, place more emphasis on training and evaluating officers on discrimination policies and to establish a satellite police office in Meacham Park. The department said it would continue to hire qualified officers without regard to race, but set no goals for increasing the number of African-American officers on the force.

Finally, the agreement pledged to address perceptions and misperceptions about the financing of the redevelopment of Meacham Park. In the process, it will hold a series of focus groups with Meacham Park residents "to identify the current cultural composition" of the neighborhood and what issues are important for the future.

Mayor Art McDonnell opened Thursday's meeting with a glowing account of the mediation, which he described as a "wonderful process" that had been conducted in the "spirit of community reconciliation." That was followed by an upbeat signing ceremony. 

But the ink wasn't dry before some Kirkwood residents criticized the mediation process. Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, said she had quit as member of the mediation process because "we couldn't discuss the racial issues that plagued the community. ... We could not even mention Cookie Thornton's name," she said. "There is a racial problem ... and it needs to be addressed."

A white member of the neighborhood association, the Rev. Ben Martin of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, asked Mayor McDonnell to confirm whether he had said, an in interview with the Beacon, that Kirkwood didn't have a race problem. McDonnell said he did not want to talk about that at Thursday's meeting. The time to discuss those kinds of questions, the mayor said, is at a community meeting scheduled for Feb. 10 where citizens can discuss and ask questions about the agreement.

Ron Hodges, an African-American on the community team, said he wasn't there to "talk up for the city, but all of this is not on city hall." Hodges, a leader of the Community for Understanding and Hope formed after the Feb. 7 shooting, described the failure of two events the group had scheduled for the fall. No one showed up for a library session and only four students came to a tutoring session in the schools.

By the time the comments finished and the city council took up the resolution, much of the audience had filed out. The council voted 6-1 to approve the agreement. Only Councilman Joseph E. Godi voted no. He read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s oft-quoted dream that some day children will "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Asked after the meeting to elaborate on his vote, Godi said the mediation process "was like two groups fighting to see who can do the best. I think it's going to cause more of a racial problem, if one exists. A racial problem is what they want in Meacham Park. They're part of Kirkwood now."

None of the mediation agreement deals with the Kirkwood School District, which covers a wider geographical area than the city. School officials had not been involved in the mediation.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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