Political, historical, socioeconomic and geographical lines dividing our St. Louis region mean our shared fate as a community is not reflected in shared governance. While the Better Together proposal got the region talking, its collapse left a huge vacuum in the conversation. So what next?
On July 11, FOCUS St. Louis, in partnership with Forward Through Ferguson, the Missouri History Museum and United Way of Greater St. Louis, convened a conversation to find out. One lesson drawn from Better Together was that much community engagement work needed to be done before any new plan is proposed. Racial equity is a defining issue for our region – if not addressed, we will not thrive no matter what else is happening. If you only fix the holes in half the boat, the boat is still sinking.
If talking about governmental reform, we have to start with the basic functions of government: government makes the rules and enforces them at gunpoint. That means two core questions of equity are in political representation (making the rules) and criminal justice (enforcing them at gunpoint). To discuss these issues we brought together a team of public officials and researchers.
Our speakers/panelists for the evening included:
- Wesley Bell, Prosecuting Attorney, St. Louis County
- Andrea Benjamin, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Missouri-Columbia
- Wray Clay, Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion, United Way of Greater St. Louis
- Hazel Erby, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, St. Louis County
- Cristina Garmendia, Author, City Equity Indicators Baseline Report, & Associate Director of Community Engagement and Applied Learning for the Race and Opportunity Lab, Brown School at Washington University
- Captain Perri Johnson, Commander – Sixth District, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department
Cristina Garmendia shared data from the groundbreaking St. Louis Equity Indicators Report, including statistics on equity in police recruitment and training. According to the report, in St. Louis City, African-Americans and whites apply to be police officers in roughly equal numbers. However, less than 10 percent of white applicants resign or are dismissed in the training process, compared to 35 percent of African-Americans. The numbers on the criminalization of poverty (as measured by poverty crimes such as driving without insurance) appear equally stark. While African-Americans stopped by the police were much more likely to be searched, searches of whites were four times as likely to turn up contraband. This report on City Equity Indicators will soon be available to be compared with the numbers from three surrounding counties through a project being spearheaded by Wray Clay at the United Way. These data sets will be crucial to any attempt to equitably reform city and county government.
Dr. Andrea Benjamin, who studies African-American representation in local government across the nation, pointed to important distinctions when it comes to the kind of representation at issue. There is descriptive representation, which ensures that traditionally under-represented communities see political office holders that look like them. But there is also substantive representation, which ensures that the core interests of disenfranchised communities are actually represented. One has to do with skin color and appearance, the other has to do with political substance, and the two don’t always align. This subject recently came into the national spotlight as a progressive group called “Justice Democrats” works to support primary challenges to officeholders who are descriptively representative, but who they may feel are not substantively representative. A local race that has been cited as an example is Cori Bush’s primary challenge of Rep. Lacy Clay. At the local level, in a city that has descriptive equity for elected office holders, it is a powerful question to ask: do we have substantive equity? Why or why not? If there is a plan for city/county reform, how do we ensure (or at least not prevent) both kinds of equity?
Former County Councilwoman Hazel Erby (now a member of the Page administration) was asked about her experiences representing a majority African-American district, which includes Ferguson and surrounding communities, on a County Council that represents a majority white population. Specifically, she was asked what it took to wield effective political power in such a situation. She pointed to the extremely difficult balance that minority representation must find in predominantly white institutions, especially government. This is the balance between being civil enough to maintain your seat at the table, but vocal enough to authentically represent a community in pain. This is a powerful dilemma that will be a big part of any process for creating city/county reform.
Shifting the subject from equity in political representation to equity in criminal justice, Captain Perri Johnson spoke from experience when describing what should be some of the basic tenets of policing culture. He cited the need for a “balance between enforcement and engagement.” He commented that “This badge has to have a heartbeat!” indicating the culture inside the department needs to change. The only place where policy can change culture is in hiring, training and promoting new officers. “We can’t continue to hire the people we hired 10, 15 or 20 years ago, because police work has changed.[…] It’s easy to teach somebody to go out there and lock somebody up, but can you teach somebody to go out there and relate, talk to somebody who doesn’t look like them?” To address these issues, one route would be creating some professionalized and standardized hiring and advancement processes for police officers around the region that ask not “how many people did you arrest today?” but “how many people did you help today?”
County Prosecutor Wesley Bell brought things back to the data when asked about transparency and reform in prosecutors’ offices. “If you are not keeping track and evaluating the data, you can’t say whether what you’re doing is successful or not.” He discussed efforts within his office to build a comprehensive data collection and tracking system. One data set that is already seeing a shift is justice center detention numbers, which has decreased by 15% since he took office, the largest decrease since the early 2000s. He also cited the comparatively low (to other cities) number of people in the county’s drug-treatment program before his tenure, which is also seeing a shift.
As moderator and facilitator, Dr. Wally Siewert pointed out that there is no single path toward making successful changes in the relationship between the city and the county. There is currently a process being initiated by the County Municipal League to revisit this issue in the form of a Board of Freeholders. This is the process the constitution lays out for making fundamental change in the region. On the other hand change doesn’t have to come all at once in grand movements. There are thousands of small ways for cooperation and collaboration between the city and county to get better, starting from small things like shared processes and departmental cooperation and growing into something bigger. For that reason, he ended the event on a call to action, encouraging everyone who cares about St. Louis to engage. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you have to ask the questions: How, precisely? What, precisely? When, where, and for whom? Leaders show up, and St. Louis is working to build a region full of effective leaders. Therefore, we hope to continue to facilitate this conversation to move the region forward.
Check out additional media coverage of this event: