Monday, October 01, 2012

MO: Federal judge blasts St. Louis police board

A federal judge has rebuked the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, writing that a "reasonable jury could conclude" that it was either "deliberately indifferent" to "a widespread persistent pattern of unconstitutional conduct" or "tacitly approved" it.

The criticism by U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson comes about four years after another federal judge, E. Richard Webber, used similar language to accuse the board in an unrelated case of casting a "blind eye" to complaints that officers were using excessive force.

Jackson also faulted some of the department's leadership, saying that Chief Dan Isom and Lt. Col. Reggie Harris "failed to supervise" three staff members, including Lt. Henrietta Arnold. She is accused of having her son's girlfriend, 17, arrested outside the city limits on a false charge, with a falsified police report.

The judge's comments came in her written rejection of the board's request that the judge dismiss a damage lawsuit filed by the teen. Jackson also wrote that the arresting officer and a supervisor "conspired to conceal Arnold's role in the arrest."

The police department declined to comment on Jackson's findings, which were filed last month.

Among the commissioners, Richard Gray, the president, and Tom Irwin, who noted that he was not on the board during the Arnold incident, declined to comment. Bettye Battle-Turner has a personal policy against speaking to reporters. Mayor Francis Slay did not respond to a request for comment. The fifth board spot is vacant.

On Nov. 6, voters will be asked whether to dissolve the board — comprising four gubernatorial appointees and the mayor — which has operated the police department since the Civil War era.

If the measure passes, the department would become a city agency under the mayor, like the fire department. Passage also would award sole disciplinary authority over police employees to the city civil service commission, and seal those records from the public.


The girl in Arnold's case, identified only as "S.L." in court papers, sued Arnold, the police board, senior staff and other officers in 2010, alleging unlawful arrest and false imprisonment.

In court documents, she claims she was arrested by Arnold and Officer Susie Lorthridge after Arnold returned to her home in Riverview in the middle of the day on July 3, 2010, and caught the teen in her son's bedroom.

Lorthridge refused to let the girl leave, instead arresting her for trespassing. Lorthridge then falsified a police report, using a nearby address inside the city limits and fabricating a witness, according to testimony and documents.

The girl later gave birth to Arnold's granddaughter, although she did not know she was pregnant at the time of the arrest.

Arnold has not responded to requests for comment; Lorthridge could not be reached.

In court filings and in testimony at Arnold's police board trial, Arnold said she had previously caught the girl at her home and told her not to return. She denied the teen's claims and said the department knowingly used false testimony against her.

Jackson's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the teen. Her attorneys allege that board members "are not only woefully removed from their proper role overseeing SLMPD officers by structural barriers, they are in fact almost entirely unfamiliar with the rules they are charged with enforcing."

The board, the teen's attorneys claim, failed to take action to deal with a known problem. On 23 occasions in the five-year period before the teen's arrest, they say, officers were accused of submitting false reports to conceal unlawful conduct — including planting evidence, committing perjury, drug dealing, accepting bribes and falsifying information in search warrants. None of those officers appeared in internal affairs reports, the attorneys say, suggesting that they were never investigated.

Her attorneys say that at least 16 instances of false reporting by police never surfaced in the past two years. They also say that the board's failure to react to Webber's 2008 ruling represents "deliberate indifference."

Jeff Jensen, one of the teen's attorneys, said, "The board intentionally does not learn about misconduct if there is likely to be a board trial and they don't learn about misconduct if the investigation is being conducted by the FBI, so I don't see how you manage a department if you're intentionally kept in the dark."

Despite Jackson's language and refusal to toss out the civil suit, she did grant dismissal of counts against Sgt. Lathan Isshawn-O'Quinn, a supervisor, and threw out the entire lawsuit naming Lt. Col. Antoinette Filla, who has since retired.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri attorney general's office, which is defending the case and signaled last week that it would appeal Jackson's decision, referred questions to the police. No such appeal has been filed so far.

Arnold was fired last year. Lorthridge resigned in 2010.


The issue before Judge Webber in 2008 was a similar motion in a suit on behalf of Kenneth Rohrbough, a Marine Corps veteran who claimed he was beaten while handcuffed during an arrest in 2002.

Citing department statistics, Webber said that in the five years before 2002, the department received 322 complaints of "physical abuse" but sustained only one.

"This evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that the (board is) deliberately indifferent to the risk that officers are using excessive force," he wrote.

The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second delivered a verdict in Rohrbough's favor for $365,000 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The board appealed and later settled the case for $500,000.

Chris Goodson, then president of the police board, disputed Webber's findings, saying his statistics missed the full picture. Goodson insisted that the board had disciplined and even fired officers brought up on other departmental charges in cases where the internal affairs unit did not sustain an abuse charge.

At the time, the police department provided updated statistics saying five of 205 complaints of physical abuse were "sustained" from 2003-07. More than a quarter of 568 charges of "conduct unbecoming" were sustained. That charge is catch-all for a variety of misconduct claims, but it is not clear how many might have been associated with physical abuse.

Fourteen officers were fired during that period for a variety of offenses, and 37 resigned under charges, the department said.


Meanwhile, Isom danced around questions about his rumored retirement when questioned by a reporter after Wednesday's police board meeting.

"I don't know what my future holds," Isom said when asked whether he intends to resign to take a teaching position at his alma mater, the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His police contract expires in October 2013.

Isom became the department's 33rd chief in October 2008, about 20 years into his career here.

Original report here

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