Fatal State Violence Project went from tracking deaths to supporting families
In 2013, Toni Taylor’s 25-year-old son, Cary Ball Jr., was killed by two St. Louis police officers, both of whom were later officially cleared of wrongdoing. Taylor spent the next few years advocating for her son, seeking details of the investigation and demanding further accountability. She also began meeting other families grappling with the same frustrations — and the same grief.
“We came together,” Taylor said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Just talking about our experience, what we went through, [how] nobody there to reach out to, nobody to guide you.”
She added, “There is no book that comes with this.”
First hosted in 2018 by the St. Louis civil rights law firm Arch City Defenders, those meetings with other families eventually became a support network for those trying to find answers after the death of a loved one in the region’s jails or at the hands of police officers. In 2021, Arch City Defenders settled on a term to describe those tragic incidents: “Fatal state violence.”
That year, Arch City Defenders released its report on the subject, “Death by the State,” which found at least 179 cases of “fatal state violence” between 2009 and 2019 across police departments and jails in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Jefferson County and St. Charles County.
But the project’s latest effort goes beyond just documentation: In collaboration with the group Faith for Justice, the Fatal State Violence Project now includes a crisis hotline and all-volunteer response team. When someone is killed by police, or dies in a jail, the response team mobilizes to comfort family members, gather witness testimony and provide ongoing support through the agonizing uncertainties of an official investigation.
Taylor is among the project’s volunteer responders. Along with the crisis hotline, she monitors social media and local news for reports of deaths. She then deploys to the scenes to offer support to families and to canvass the area for possible witnesses.
In the program’s first six months, Taylor said she responded to eleven deaths.
“The most important thing,” she explained, “is getting those witness statements, people that actually seen what was going on.”
Going out into the field, collecting witness statements, connecting with family members — there’s another term for those tasks, noted Arch City Defender staff attorney Emanuel Powell. He calls it “a people’s investigation.”
“It's about taking back the narrative about these killings,” he said Monday. “The information that is available is often from the police; it can be very biased. We've seen that it can re-traumatize the family because it criminalizes their loved one, or dehumanizes them.”
Like Taylor, Powell knows the impact of fatal state violence on the surviving families: In 2017, Powell’s cousin, Ronnie Shorter, was killed by police officers in Greenville Mississippi. After joining Arch City Defenders, Powell helped found the Fatal State Violence Project and oversaw its expansion. Now, in cooperation with the group Faith for Justice, the project is aiming to make sure that families like Powell’s and Taylor’s don’t have to struggle alone.
“It's to build a community of families, so that they have the power to help one another, and help others,” Powell noted. “Every family we've talked to has said, ‘I never want to see this happen to another person.’”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.