Republican Gov. Eric Greitens and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, a Democrat, promised during their recent campaigns to make people feel safe.
Last week’s acquittal of a white ex-police officer of the first-degree murder of a black man is putting their words to the test, and activists and elected officials aren’t sure Greitens and Krewson are earning passing grades.
The leaders feel they were well prepared to deal with mass protests that have gone on since Friday’s decision, and they both believe they’re sending the right messages about vandalism — including damage to Krewson’s home — and arrests.
“I think that message of protecting people who are protesting peacefully and proactively responding to violence and proactively responding to vandalism is the right thing to do,” Greitens said Saturday.
Off the bat, Democratic state Rep. Michael Butler said, Krewson and Greitens took the wrong approach and set unrealistic expectations for “peace.”
“Peace can be mistaken as calmness and relaxation,” the St. Louis politician said. “For the people that care and have compassion for the citizens of St. Louis and have actual compassion for the family of Anthony Lamar Smith and Anthony Lamar Smith himself … we cannot be at peace. I’m not at peace with this verdict.”
Greitens, who took office in January, is trying to set his response apart from how former Gov. Jay Nixon handled protests in 2014 after Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson. Greitens has been in St. Louis before and after the verdict; Nixon didn’t show up in the St. Louis area until several days after a white police officer shot Brown.
Greitens, who served in the military, also tried to establish a clear command hierarchy among law enforcement. St. Louis Police are in charge of responding to the protests, while St. Louis County Police, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the National Guard are playing a supporting role.
That’s in comparison to immediately after Brown died, when multiple law enforcement agencies were responsible for handling protests.
“Operationally and tactically, there’s a completely different response,” Greitens said. “We have integrated the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County, St. Louis City, National Guard command, and the state emergency management agency. They’re all coordinated together.”
Since Brown was killed in the county, then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay played a somewhat supporting role to Nixon and then-county executive Charlie Dooley.
That’s not the case for Krewson, who is heavily involved in how the police department her administration controls reactions. She’s been an elected official for nearly two decades, and is aware of the racial and economic divides throughout the city.
“The issues being protested are real impediments to the success of our city,” she said Saturday.
Stockley was found not guilty of first-degree murder Friday after an August bench trial in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black. Prosecutors alleged Stockley executed Smith after a car chase and then planted a gun in his car. Stockley maintained that Smith reached for the gun and that he shot Smith in self defense.
Krewson, who made lowering crime in St. Louis neighborhoods her top priority during this year’s mayoral campaign, also is trying to clamp down what she says are overblown fears about the protests putting residents in danger.
“Of course go to work. Of course go out to eat,” Krewson said Saturday. “We shouldn’t be so fearful here. I think that these are all of our neighbors. These are our friends. These are our relatives.”
It’s likely too early to tell if Greitens’ and Krewson’s words are having an effect. The vast majority of protesters have refrained from violence or vandalism all weekend, though people did break windows in the Central West End and the Delmar Loop and throw rocks at police officers, leading to dozens of arrests. Police arrested 80 people on Sunday night in Downtown St. Louis.
Supporters of the protest movement, like Felicia Styer, say Greitens and Krewson set unrealistic expectations that people would respond peacefully to the acquittal.
“I think government officials underestimated the level of outrage that people are having around the verdict,” Styer said. “It’s just so heavy. And I think it’s really hard to understand that if you haven’t been affected.”
Greitens met with clergy members and the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus ahead of Friday. But two Black Caucus members from St. Louis, Butler and Democratic state Rep. Bruce Franks, said they wanted Greitens to meet with activists who are organizing the protests.
That’s what St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts did. Responsible for security at the city’s courthouses, Betts said such an approach is better than meeting protesters riot shields and pepper spray.
“They are a less patient group than we are,” Betts said. “So we need to spend more time sitting, listening to them and trying to understand their desires.”
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones could have been the one to oversee the city’s response, as she barely lost to Krewson during the Democratic primary. All of the city’s elected officials should have met to coordinate how to respond to the Shockley verdict, she said.
Now that the verdict is in, Jones said, she hopes leaders are compelled to re-examine the criminal justice system. State and local politicians passed relatively few laws in response to Ferguson.
“There are tons of cities that are improving their criminal justice system that stop arresting people for being black or poor or sick or on drugs,” Jones said. “If don’t take this moment again, and here we are again three years later, and make some significant changes, we’re going to continue to see this happen over and over and over again.”
It’ll be up to Greitens and Krewson to decide if they’ll take a similar public policy course.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum