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No meeting of the minds: Krewson talks, struggles to resonate with Harris-Stowe audience

During a frequently contentious forum Wednesday at Harris-Stowe State University, people who have been protesting for the past three weeks had choice words and asked pointed questions of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

What was billed as a forum to discuss how to transfer the activism of the protests into policy turned into more of a question-and-answer session with audience members demanding to know why it’s so hard to get a new police chief; why the city isn’t investing more in communities of color and why the city hasn’t followed the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission.

“There are actual things we can do now. This is not a time for excuses or further studying,” said David Dwight, communications and strategy catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson.

In addition to Dwight speakers at the forum were police Sgt. Heather Taylor of the Ethical Society of Police, Mayor Lyda Krewson and Missouri state Rep. Bruce Franks, who has been active in the near-daily protests. Through the evening, the audience members frequently shouted over Krewson's answers and broke into chants.

The search for a new police chief was among the hottest topics of the evening. When Krewson first took office in April, then-Chief Sam Dotson resigned and was replaced by Interim Chief Lawrence O’Toole.

After Sept. 15, when a judge ruled that Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer who is white, was not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man suspected of dealing drugs, there have been near daily protests around the region. O’Toole has come under fire for the tactics police have used to subdue and arrest demonstrators. Authorities have arrested more than 300 protesters in the St. Louis and St. Louis County since the protests began.

During Wednesday’s forum in a full auditorium on the historically black university campus, people shouted for O’Toole to be fired or replaced as interim chief. Krewson pointed to the current search process and cited her criteria for the position.

“I want somebody who is ethical, I want somebody who is fair, I want somebody who cares about all of the people of St. Louis. I want somebody who cares about the 188 people who were murdered last year,” Krewson said, amid shouts of disbelief from the audience.

The issue, Taylor said, isn’t just that the city needs a different kind of police chief, it’s that the way the entire police force interacts with people needs to change so that officers are as reasonable and measured as possible.

“There are legitimate officer-involved shootings,” Taylor said. “However we can’t allow the environment to continue where officers are using it as a way to get away with murder.”

The idea of turning to outside arbiters to investigate when police use force is one of the recommendations that came from the Ferguson Commission

Forward Through Ferguson is the organization formed to help carry out the commission’s recommendations. Dwight reminded audience members of some of those priorities. Among them: 

  • Revising use of force policies and training
  • Moving investigations of excessive force or officer involved shootings out of the department
  • Implementing mental health screenings for officers

Krewson said she would like the Civilian Oversight Board to be given more power, another recommendation from the commission. Franks said St. Louis needs a full-time public safety director to work above the police chief.
During the course of the two-hour forum, the audience grew more boisterous and combative with Krewson. Several times, the mayor's reacted by saying, “I don’t think you want to hear me answer,” as protesters shouted their disagreement or broke out in chants often heard in the streets.

Franks also directed his comments directly to Krewson, noting that he’s met with the new mayor at least twice.

“At the end of the day there’s no list of demands or tangible legislation that you could put forward to understand why we’re out here in the first place,” Franks said. “We’re having this panel discussion because a verdict that came down, because of a police-involved shooting, period. So at the end of the day, when we say that our only demand is for y’all to stop killing us, you have to feel that first before we can talk about anything else moving forward.”

After the forum ended, Franks called for the protesters to gather outside for further action. A crowd marched along Compton Avenue, blocking the intersections with Olive and Market streets for about 90 minutes.

Follow Shula and Ryan on Twitter: @Shuneu and @rpatrickdelaney

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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