Kirkwood's Journey: Police, Meacham Park try to rebuild frayed relationship
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The main focus of Kirkwood's new racial mediation agreement is improving the difficult, sometimes deadly relationship between the mostly African-American Meacham Park neighborhood and the mostly white Kirkwood Police Department. But Meacham Park leaders doubt the proposed steps will resolve their complaints that police bully neighborhood residents. And police officers remain wary in the aftermath of three officers' killings by Meacham Park residents.
Teams working with mediators from the U.S. Justice Department drafted the agreement following the shootings at Kirkwood City Hall two years ago, and the City Council recently approved it despite neighborhood objections that it was inadequate. The shooter, Charles "Cookie" Thornton, was a Meacham Park resident and demolition contractor who was bitter about his treatment by Kirkwood officials and police. Kirkwood residents differ over what role race played in the dispute and whether the community has racial problems to address.
In the agreement, most of the concrete actions the city promises are police department steps to connect with Meacham Park's young people -- from hot dog cookouts to a new court, supervised by the police chief, where neighborhood youths would mete out punishment to peers.
But the agreement does not commit the department to goals or timetables for increasing the number of African-American employees, although this has been a longstanding concern of Meacham Park residents. When they met with the Justice Department's Community Relations Service two months after the City Hall killings, a chief complaint was that the mostly white force harassed the neighborhood.
The vantage point is very different at the police department, where three officers have been killed in the past five years by Meacham Park residents. Police chief Jack Plummer disputes the notion that race is the fundamental problem in the police department's relationship with Meacham Park, but says the department has been doing its best to hire more African Americans. He also notes that Meacham Park's crime rate is not significantly higher than the rest of Kirkwood.
Three of the force's 58 officers are black. None holds a supervisory role. In his 11 years as chief, Plummer has hired a total of seven minority officers. That's as many as the entire number of minority officers hired between 1936 and 1999, he points out. The three black officers who remain are assigned as a school resource officer, a K-9 unit officer and a detective.
Often, Plummer says, talented black officers move on to the St. Louis County Police Department. In one instance, a black officer whom he had promoted, didn't work out and had to be removed, he said.
Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, says that the heavily white police department is one reason neighborhood residents feel underrepresented in government. "We need to see some action in Kirkwood," she said. "We need to see some African Americans in leadership. I'm talking about the mayor, I'm talking about the police chief."
Patton says all of the hot dog cookouts in the world are not going to solve the problem between Meacham Park residents and the Kirkwood police.
Promises of Mediation Agreement
As part of the mediation agreement, the police department has promised to recruit more minorities for the Police Explorer Program, which involves young people assisting the police with crime prevention, traffic management and events like the city's annual Greentree Festival. The department also promised to work with police chaplains to find paid internships for high school students and to work with volunteers to find jobs for expelled students.
Plummer says community interest and police involvement in Meacham Park have grown considerably over the past two years. The department has increased patrols in the area by adding another police officer in the evening. The police have also worked with churches in Kirkwood to create a chaplain's program, which led to five young interns in the police department last summer. Plummer hopes to double that this summer.
People forget, Plummer says, that the police department had barely recovered from Kevin Johnson's murder of Sgt. William McEntee in 2005 when Thornton killed two more officers. Johnson was convicted of murdering McEntee in late 2007, just before Thornton's City Hall shootings.
Johnson shot McEntee pointblank after the officer responded to a call of fireworks being illegally discharged in Meacham Park on July 5, 2005. Johnson said he shot McEntee in retaliation for the death of his younger brother of a seizure earlier that day. Johnson claimed that police neglected to help his brother promptly because they were concerned with finding Johnson, who had a warrant out for his arrest.
Plummer said, "I talked to the media, and the first thing I told them is: 'This is not a Meacham Park problem, this is a Kevin Johnson problem.' We worked very hard to keep them separate."
But Plummer says that false rumors often spread, including a rumor that McEntee had shaken Johnson's little brother. "I deal with more perceptions and rumors than I do with reality," the chief said. "We say it's chasing ghosts."
Sometimes, young people in Meacham Park make threatening gestures toward police, Plummer says. "A small number of people would point to an officer and say you are next," he said. "The ones who have hung on to this are not our best citizens. They have been arrested in the past....and big mouths push through."
"There are race problems all over," Plummer said. "Race gets tied to a lot of incidents and a lot of the perceptions around town. I don't honestly think Kirkwood has that type of issue when you compare it to other areas with the same population."
Some people believe there is a "Meacham Park problem," Plummer said. But Plummer says Meacham Park does not have a significantly higher crime rate than other areas of the city.
23 Years on Patrol
One police officer who regularly patrols the area says crime has gone down notably compared to several decades ago.
"The reputation is probably worse than what it really is," said Lt. Brian Murphy. "I've had teachers from the high (school) say something, and I kind of look at them and say, 'It's not that bad.'
"They've had crime there. When gang things were really big in the '80s and early '90s, we had a group of guys that would run around down here and call themselves the Meacham Park gangsters."
During a ride-along with a photographer, the mostly deserted winter streets came alive with young people returning from school, some gathering in knots on the streets.
"I've been here 23 years. Even before it was Kirkwood, there are always people standing on the street corner," Murphy said. "We used to come out here and there'd be 300 people standing in the street corner. Now you got five.
"That's always a consistent complaint of kids standing in the street," Murphy said. "But sometimes, most of the time, all they're doing is standing there. They're not doing anything wrong."
Joe Cole, a longtime Meacham Park activist and founder of the Club 44 youth program, says the most important goal for the community should be getting young people off the streets and into clubs and activities. "It's about giving young people something to do and something to hope for," Cole said. "A lot of these kids have nothing to do. What do you expect to happen?"
For most of its existence Meacham Park was not part of Kirkwood, and the neighborhood still feels cut off from the rest of the city. Charles Howard, one of the African-American members of the mediation effort, calls the sense of separation the "Mason-Dixon line" that divides blacks from whites and blacks in Meacham Park from blacks in the rest of Kirkwood. Howard says he sees signs, though, that "the youth is getting it together" to end this "segregation."
Lt. Murphy understands, however, why residents' want to preserve their neighborhood. "I think some of it is they want to keep their identity, the residents of Meacham Park," he said. "They don't just want to be wiped clean and I can understand that."
Change Like Lava
Chief Plummer has a gruff exterior. He remembers the old days, he says, when you couldn't be nice to people and still be respected within the police department.
But Plummer tried to keep open the lines of communication with Thornton, joining him for coffee and to talk about how to defuse his anger. On the one-year anniversary of the City Hall shootings, Plummer was the only city official who showed up at the Douglas Memorial Church of God in Meacham Park for a service offering prayers for Thornton's mother, Annie Thornton.
Last month, as the second anniversary of the killings approached, Plummer walked along the construction for the new memorial walkway for the fallen city officials, pointing out where they will be commemorated in an area between City Hall and the railroad tracks.
No matter how much time passes, he said, the memories of the shootings will remain with the department and the rest of the community. Plummer flinches every time the phone rings at night. "You can never say 'never' anymore," he said.
Circumstances and attitudes will not change quickly, he predicted. "I've been doing this a long time, and the ability to change people's mind is so limited," Plummer said. "It's like lava. It doesn't move fast."
From where Plummer sits at his desk in the Kirkwood police headquarters, he can see the men and women changing shifts. He has been thinking of moving the desk. "I normally see the guys coming in and out, shift change and such," Plummer said. The chief's tough guy exterior melts. His face reddens, his eyes get puffy and tears well up. "Maybe, once in a while, I wonder if they're going to come back."
The reporting team, from the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, includes William H. Freivogel, director of the school and a regular Beacon contributor and Jaclyn Brenning, a reporter-in-residence.
This article is part of a series on Kirkwoodians' efforts to understand how race affects their city and what role it might have played in the City Hall shootings two years ago. Read more stories about Kirkwood's Journey . The series is part of the Beacon's Race, Frankly project.