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It’s been more than six years since then-Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. His death sparked reports, blue-ribbon commissions and countless police reform efforts. But so many of those reforms fell short of their stated goals. Today, St. Louis tragically leads the nation in police killings per capita. 

As the nation continues to grapple with how to save Black lives from police violence, we’re partnering with The Missouri Independent to examine why police reform efforts so often fail. We follow a new generation of leaders who, as a part of the Ferguson movement, are finding new ways to change policing in the St. Louis region. Reporters Trey Bundy and Rebecca Rivas follow local activist Kayla Reed, who went from attending protests to organizing them. After years of frustratingly slow progress toward reform, Reed transformed herself into a political powerbroker who is upending city politics.

And there’s no way to talk about police reform without talking about the power of police unions. We look how the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the city’s main union, formed to protect white police officers from accountability after beating a Black man. And  we talk with James Buchanan, one of the city’s few Black police officers in the 1960s, who went on to help start the Ethical Society of Police, a union founded by Black officers to fight for racial equity in the department and community.

This show is guest hosted by Kameel Stanley of Witness Docs, a documentary podcast network from Stitcher and SiriusXM.

Dig Deeper

Read: ‘The fight has to change’: Why Ferguson activists ditched police reform

Read: The Ferguson movement is on the cusp of revolutionizing political power in St. Louis

Credits

Reported by: Rebecca Rivas, Trey Bundy and Najib Aminy | Lead producer: Najib Aminy | Edited by: Brett Myers, with additional editing from Andrew Donohue and Taki Telonidis | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra | Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Kameel Stanley | Thanks to Kenya Vaughn, who provided editorial support for today’s show. Thanks also to Fred Sweets at The St. Louis American and Jason Hancock at The Missouri Independent.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:Hey, hey, hey. It’s Al, and the worst secret in the Multiverse is that I am a huge, huge comic book fan. Listen, I am such a comic book nerd that I am looking at all the comics I have spread out on my floor that I have to put in order in their little boxes. Seriously, uber nerd. I love it. And guess what? Reveal made a comic book. We paired beautiful illustrations by Thi Bui with our powerful stories about inequities revealed by the pandemic. We have this limited-time offer. If you donate $50, we’ll send you a copy. Just text the word comic to 474747. You can text stop at any time. Standard data rates apply. Again, just text the word comic to 474747. True believers, thank you.
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Kameel Stanley:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Kameel Stanley, filling in for Al Letson. Al’s working on a big series that you’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the coming months. I’m the executive producer of Witness Docs from Stitcher. We make great podcasts about complicated people. Today on Reveal, change. How do we make it happen?
President Biden:We have to come together.
Kameel Stanley:President Biden, speaking this month before a joint session of Congress.
President Biden:Through that systemic racism in our criminal justice system and enact police reform in George Floyd’s name.
Kameel Stanley:Police reform. It’s one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? What does real reform look like? It’s been just a few weeks since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd, and already, it’s hard to keep track of all the police killings that have happened since. So, as the nation grapples with police reform, we’re going to look at a region where it’s been fought over, maybe more than anywhere else, for the last six years. It’s the place where I live, St. Louis.
Audio:Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!
Audio:You must disperse immediately. Now. This is an order. You’re subject to arrest and other actions.
Kameel Stanley:It was August 2014 when Michael Brown was killed by then Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Michael Brown was 18, Black, and unarmed. And for many Black people here, his death was a turning point.
Kayla Reed:It was the singular date that changed the trajectory of my life, and that was the day Mike Brown was murdered.
Kameel Stanley:Kayla Reed was 24 years old at the time. She lived less than a mile from where Michael Brown was killed. She was working two jobs as a pharmacy tech and a clerk at a local furniture store.
Kayla Reed:I was at that store when I heard about Mike Brown being killed, and that his body was still on the ground several hours after the incident.
Kameel Stanley:The whole time she was at work, Kayla was glued to her phone, watching social media and messaging a friend.
Kayla Reed:We were texting about it, and he said we should go to Ferguson, so we went.
Audio:Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!
Kayla Reed:I just found myself wanting to be in solidarity with the people who were mourning, and a deep rage.
Kameel Stanley:Kayla would get off work in the evening and then head straight to Ferguson to join protest until 2:00 or 3:00 AM. She’d grab a few hours of sleep and then do it all again the next day. This was her routine for months.
Kayla Reed:I don’t think anyone went out in August of 2014 thinking that they were starting a movement or understanding what it meant to start a movement.
Kameel Stanley:Ferguson launched a movement and inspired a new generation of leaders. Kayla’s one of them.
Kayla Reed:I wasn’t an abolitionist, I wasn’t a Black feminist, I didn’t have a critique of capitalism. I was just a person who lived in St. Louis, who understood that Mike Brown shouldn’t have died that day.
Kameel Stanley:In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, there were studies, reports, blue-ribbon commissions, and countless police reform efforts. Many came up shorter than promised, but the seeds that were planted in the streets of Ferguson are beginning to grow. Today, in a partnership with the Missouri Independent, we’ll look at how reformers in St. Louis are finding new ways to transform policing. Reveal’s Trey Bundy begins our story.
Trey Bundy:After Michael Brown’s death, Kayla Reed quit her jobs and dedicated herself to fighting for police reform, but she had a lot to learn.
Kayla Reed:I hadn’t really dug deep into the organizations that fueled the civil rights movement, the growth of that history. And even more than that, I live the inequality in St. Louis. I didn’t know how it came to me.
Trey Bundy:The more she learned, the more she began to see systemic racism at play.
Kayla Reed:You don’t know that you’re breathing bad air until someone tells you, because that’s just what you’ve been in.
Trey Bundy:Just as Kayla was diving into activism, Jay Nixon, then governor of Missouri, held a press conference to announce what he said would be a sweeping response to the killing of Michael Brown.
Jay Nixon:Good afternoon. Throughout the history of our nation, we have struggled to treat all our citizens as equals.
Trey Bundy:Nixon’s critics had blamed him for sending the National Guard to Ferguson and escalating violence against protesters. Now, he was calling those protesters change-makers.
Jay Nixon:The protests set in motion by the events of August 9th in Ferguson echo others within our lifetime. Across the decades, those protests have been a cry from the heart. That is why, today, I’m announcing the creation of the Ferguson Commission.
Trey Bundy:The Ferguson Commission would bring together educators, community leaders, and experts in health and law enforcement. They would study inequity and systemic racism in St. Louis, and issue a report the governor promised would be a blueprint for reform. Nixon’s office asked Reverend Starsky Wilson, a prominent Black community leader, to help lead the commission. During its first meeting, Reverend Wilson said the eyes of the world were on this work.
Reverend Wilson:But more than anything else, the eyes of our region, our neighbors, our friends, our families, our church members, are upon us, because our work will affect their life outcomes first and foremost.
Trey Bundy:It would take months for the commission to finish its report, but Kayla wasn’t waiting around. She and other activists ramped up the fight for police reform. One of the first items on their list, a Civilian Oversight Board to make police more accountable to the public. Police fight hard against civilian oversight, and police in St. Louis have staved it off for decades.
Audio:The Public Safety Committee meeting is now called to order. Mr. Clerk, please call the roll.
Trey Bundy:It’s January 2015, and Kayla’s at City Hall for a now infamous meeting over a civilian oversight bill.
Kayla Reed:And we were in this hearing. I was 25. We had packed the hearing. So many people had come to testify.
Trey Bundy:The place is full, and people stand shoulder to shoulder. They take turns at the microphone.
Audio:We have a lot of opportunities to dig ourselves out of the racist hellhole, institutional racism here in St. Louis, in particular the way our police department functions, to do something very different.
Trey Bundy:Almost an hour into the meeting, an off-duty police officer gets up to speak.
David Rudolph:My name is David Rudolph, and I am a commissioned police officer for the city of St. Louis. I’m a member of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
Trey Bundy:He’s there on behalf of the union and says that tensions have been high since Ferguson.
David Rudolph:Those tensions are what the men and women of the police services live every single day they patrol of streets.
Trey Bundy:The police union helped kill a similar bill back in 2006, and Rudolph says they don’t like this one either. He says it’s hostile toward law enforcement.
David Rudolph:Police are not perfect, nor do we hold ourselves out to be, but we do put our lives on the line every day. Please be respectful. What?
Trey Bundy:People start speaking out. It’s tense. This is just five months after Ferguson. To a lot of people, civilian oversight has become a life-and-death issue. You can hear the anger in the room as more officers get up to speak against the bill. Then, the spokesperson for the police union yells out.
Jeff Roorda:Come on, Mr. Chair. How about some order here, huh?
Trey Bundy:That’s Jeff Roorda. He’s the public face of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. On the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, he posted on social media, “Happy alive day, Darren,” to Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. At the meeting, he’s wearing a wristband in support for Wilson. He’s been walking around, showing it off, and riling people up. When he calls for order, it doesn’t go over well, and the chairman fires back.
Audio:Pardon me. Pardon me. Pardon me. Excuse me. First of all, you do not tell me my function.
Audio:That’s right!
Kayla Reed:Someone turns around to address Jeff Roorda, and he shoves someone, a woman, a Black woman, and the whole room just erupted.
Audio:You white supremacist motherfucker! Fuck you, Roorda! Fuck you, polices! You’re a piece of shit!
Kayla Reed:Yeah, chairs were being thrown around. It was a lot going on.
Trey Bundy:We asked Jeff Roorda about this incident, but he didn’t respond. Eventually, some people are cleared from the room, but those inside are still on edge.
Kayla Reed:They called my name to testify immediately after that. They were like, “Oh, next on the list is Kayla Reed,” and I was like, “That is me. I’m still trying to get people sitting down, so hold on just for a second.”
Audio:Either we’re going to continue this meeting, or we’re not going to continue it.
Kayla Reed:We’re going to continue the meeting.
Audio:Okay. Ms. Reed, it’s eating into her time, so please [crosstalk].
Kayla Reed:Okay. The bit that we have right now is definitely something that’s necessary [crosstalk].
Trey Bundy:As she’s talking, Kayla can’t get the incident with Roorda out of her mind. He’s the union spokesperson, and he just got physical with a woman in a public meeting. To Kayla, it was exactly the kind of impunity she hoped the Civilian Oversight Board would put in check.
Kayla Reed:I was shaking, because I was so angry. I was viscerally pissed off.
Kayla Reed:If you kill someone, regardless if a badge is on your chest or not, the law says murder, you should have to go to jail for that. You should be [crosstalk].
Trey Bundy:Three months after the meeting at City Hall and just eight months after Michael Brown was killed, the civilian oversight bill passes. It’s a major victory for organizers like Kayla, who are trying to put a stop to police killings. But then came the reality.
Kayla Reed:It ultimately passed and it exists in the city, but it hasn’t stopped people from being killed.
Trey Bundy:St. Louis Metropolitan Police shoot more people per capita than any other force in the country. Since Ferguson, they’ve shot at least 53 people, and at least 27 have died. But since it started five years ago, the Civilian Oversight Board hasn’t investigated any of those shootings. Zero. They’ve never done it. Why? Because in St. Louis, police reform is so fraught with conflict and mistrust that it’s really easy to knock it off course.
Trey Bundy:For example, these cases begin inside the police department with cops investigating cops. When the police are done, the circuit attorney reviews the case. That’s the city’s top prosecutor. She tells us that many of these investigations are so incomplete that she can’t sign off on them, so they stall out in her office and never make it to the Civilian Oversight Board. Another problem comes down to the paperwork. The police department refuses to use a joint complaint form, one that would ensure the Civilian Oversight Board gets a copy. For the three years starting in 2016, the board says more than 95% of citizen complaints against police never made it to their office. We asked the police department about this, but they didn’t get back to us.
Trey Bundy:These procedural problems have stopped the Civilian Oversight Board from carrying out its mission to hold police accountable. It’s one of many examples since Ferguson of police reforms that haven’t added up to real change.
Audio:A local commission today released a blunt new report. The 16-member Ferguson Commission issued 189 calls to action.
Trey Bundy:Remember the Ferguson Commission, that big effort to improve equity and public safety after Michael Brown was killed? Its final report wasn’t really about police policies. Out of 189 calls to action, about a dozen were aimed at police reform, and none of them had successfully been put in place. Most of the report was focused on improving education, housing, health, economic opportunity, initiatives the commission believed would make underserved communities safer. And it identified a key barrier to all of that: systemic racism.
Reverend Wilson:I think I know much more clearly who to trust and who not to.
Trey Bundy:Reverend Starsky Wilson, who helped lead the Ferguson Commission, he talked about the report on the local podcast Under The Arch, and how systemic racism dominates the city’s institutions.
Reverend Wilson:That’s not going to be broken with the best policy papers, and that’s not going to be broken through educational advancement. It’s going to be broken by really powerful communities being able to bend systems to their own will and to their interest.
Trey Bundy:That vision of communities taking the reins of power had begun to shape Kayla’s approach to reform. The longer she fought to change policing in St. Louis, the more she came to believe that chipping away at police reform was not the best way to save Black lives.
Kayla Reed:In 2015, what we were responding to were these individual cases of police brutality. In Mike Brown’s case, there was no camera, so people asked for body cameras. The officer was White, so people asked for more diversity. There was no consequence to the officer, so people asked for civilian oversight. But each of those solutions, more training, diversity, cameras, civilian oversight, only add more money to the police and can be derailed and controlled by the police union.
Trey Bundy:Kayla started out, like countless other demonstrators, drawn into the street to protest the killing of a Black man in her city. Now, she was seeing a bigger picture. It was all about political power, and the police were the ones who had it.
Kayla Reed:People are only going to do this thing if they understand that you hold power.
Trey Bundy:Kayla knew that if she and her allies wanted systemic change, they couldn’t just fight the system. What they really needed to do was take it over.
Kameel Stanley:That was Reveal’s Trey Bundy. Later in the show, we’ll come back to Kayla Reed as she and her allies set their sights on City Hall. But first, we’re going to tell you the story of Black police officers in St. Louis trying to change their department from the inside.
James Buchanan:Unfortunately, that was a mission of trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. It’s just a mission impossible.
Kameel Stanley:That’s coming up on Reveal.
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Kameel Stanley:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Kameel Stanley, in for Al Letson.
Kameel Stanley:St. Louis leads the nation in police killings per capita, and more than two-thirds of those killed by police are Black men. Today, we’re partnering with the Missouri Independent to look at how the movement for police accountability has evolved since Ferguson. And you can’t talk about police reforms here without talking about the role of the city’s main police union. The St. Louis Police Officers Association has consistently pushed back against community-led reform. And the more we dug, the more we realized that pushing back against accountability, well, it has a lot to do with how the union got its start in the first place. For St. Louis resident James Buchanan, it’s a personal story, one that dates back to a Sunday in 1955.
James Buchanan:I do recall my dad had a tie on, my mother was dressed, and we had our church clothes on, and we were all three in the back seat.
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan was sitting with his two younger sisters in the back seat of his family’s Buick Roadmaster. He was just 12 years old at the time, coming back from church when his dad went through an intersection.
James Buchanan:This police officer, he stopped my dad, pulled him over.
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan says the St. Louis police officer asked his dad, “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” And he used a racial epithet, calling his dad the N-word.
James Buchanan:And my dad looked at him and said, “Well, officer, whatever the problem is,” he said, “if you would be kind enough to be courteous to my family and children here, I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan says the officer repeated his question. “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” And for the second time, he called his dad the N-word.
James Buchanan:With that, my dad got out of the car, and he says, “Get your Black ass back into that car.”
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan was there in the back seat, watching all of this unfold.
James Buchanan:My mother, she got out of the car and stepped in between the policeman and my dad, and the officer drew his weapon, and it was pointing towards my mother’s chest. I just had this flash of this White police officer mowing down my mother and father, and I was terrified. I was actually traumatized for almost my entire lifetime, thinking how closely my mother and father came to getting killed by a police officer.
Kameel Stanley:This incident changed his life. It’s part of why, after he graduated high school, he decided to become a police officer himself.
James Buchanan:My mother, she had a conniption. She said, “That’s the last thing that I want you to do, is to be a police officer.”
Kameel Stanley:His father had a different take.
James Buchanan:My dad was thrilled about it. His thought was, if there were Black people involved, that would make a difference.
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan became a St. Louis police officer in 1965, just a decade after that incident with his family in the car. During his first three years on the job, one local activist group reported that police shot and killed 23 Black civilians. Tension between police and the Black community were on the rise.
James Buchanan:These things were going on all the time. The brutality complaints, the incident that took place in the Ninth District Station.
Kameel Stanley:The incident at the Ninth District Station involved the St. Louis Police Department and a local civil rights group called the Black Liberators.
Eugene Faller:Well, we were called militants, agitators, anything that they could do to try to separate us in the community.
Kameel Stanley:Eugene Faller was in his early 20s in 1968 when he became a member of the Black Liberators. The group modeled itself after the Black Panther Party, wearing black leather coats and berets, conducting military-style drills, and focusing its message on Black self-determination and empowerment. Its leader, Charles Koen, went by Chuck. He was a charismatic speaker who had no trouble drawing in crowds.
Eugene Faller:He was cute, so the ladies surrendered around him. Any time he had a rally, they would be there. The girls would [inaudible].
Kameel Stanley:Almost everyone we spoke to about Chuck Koen commented on his good looks, and the pictures don’t lie. He had a strong jawline, choice eyewear, and a sharp looking fro. Police weren’t admirers.
Eugene Faller:Chuck was seen as the enemy, because we had a Malcolm X kind of mentality. Protect your community by any means necessary.
Kameel Stanley:Police targeted the Black Liberators, and officers ticketed, arrested, and booked many of its members, and eyewitnesses describe seeing plain-clothes officers destroying the group’s headquarters. Then, there’s what the police did to the group’s leader, Chuck Koen, in September of 1968, when they took him to the Ninth District Station.
Eugene Faller:They did what I call the old bully thing. “We want to show you who the rulers are,” and that’s where they beat him.
Kameel Stanley:Chuck and his number two, Leon Dent, were pulled over because their break lights weren’t working. The traffic stop turned into an arrest, and the two were booked at the Ninth District Station. Shortly after arriving, police said they were attacked, and one officer was hospitalized with a concussion. But Chuck said police attacked first. He told a newspaper reporter that a cop grabbed him by his collar, threw him across the room, and beat him with a nightstick. He said he didn’t know how long the beating lasted, because he passed out. Eugene remembers seeing Chuck afterwards.
Eugene Faller:He looked like somebody that had been beaten enough to die. And excuse my voice, because I don’t take too well for the mere fact that the recalling of them bothers me.
Kameel Stanley:The front pages of local newspapers reported that Chuck was hospitalized with broken hands and deep cuts to his scalp. Word of the beating spread. Protesters rallied outside the mayor’s house. Both Black and White community leaders spoke out. And with pressure building, top brass decided they would discipline the officers involved.
James Buchanan:There was a final resolution indicating that there was excessive force used.
Kameel Stanley:James Buchanan, the Black officer who joined the department just a few years earlier, remembers how the news was received.
James Buchanan:The White officers were enraged with this decision.
Kameel Stanley:After the announcement, more than 200 police officers met on a muddy baseball field. They talked about forming a union, one that would protect them specifically from discipline like this. St. Louis police officers had tried to form a union before, but Missouri’s Board of Police Commissioners, which oversaw the department, had denied their application. The board worried a police strike could jeopardize public safety. But this time, after that incident at the Ninth District Station, politicians got involved, expressing their support for the union. Soon, the state legislature passed a law saying police were allowed to organize.
James Buchanan:There was so much political persuasion that, when they made the application, they were granted the right to form a police union, which they later became known as the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
Kameel Stanley:Yup. This is how the St. Louis police union formed. White officers beat Black activists, pushed back against accountability, and then organized to protect each other. As for the incident at the Ninth District Station, officers didn’t end up getting punished after all, and both Chuck Koen and Leon Dent were found guilty for assault. Throughout the ’60s, police unions were forming all across the country. Researchers have found that many got their start, like the one in St. Louis, as a direct response to calls for accountability. James Buchanan had no desire to join this new union. He became a cop to try and change the status quo, not protect it.
James Buchanan:I felt, as an individual officer acting in a professional and moral way, that I would make a difference. Unfortunately, that was a mission of trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. It’s just a mission impossible.
Kameel Stanley:He realized he couldn’t do it alone. In fact, years before the union formed, Buchanan and a few like-minded Black officers got together. They started meeting in his mother’s living room, trying to organize their own group.
James Buchanan:We wanted to address discrimination, excessive force, and the problem of hiring and promotions. The problem that we surmised was institutionalized racism.
Kameel Stanley:He and 14 fellow officers began the process of starting St. Louis’s very own Black police union. And when word got out-
James Buchanan:We just became known as the Doom 15.
Kameel Stanley:Buchanan battled for years, and finally, in 1972, his group, the Ethical Society of Police, won formal recognition. Today, there are dozens of Black police associations like it across the country, groups that try to protect Black officers from discrimination and push for police reform. For Buchanan, it came at a cost. He says he was denied promotions for his role in the organization, like when he led a protest against the police department for unequal hiring practices. In 1988, he retired as a sergeant, and after 20 years of fighting to change the police department from within, Buchanan says he came to realize that the problem was something much bigger than just the St. Louis Police Department.
James Buchanan:Until we really get down to the real nitty gritty of what that is, there will never, ever be a solution, because we can never talk about the problem. And the problem is the problem of white supremacy in this country. It has its tentacles attached to every aspect of American society.
Kameel Stanley:A lot of those battles James Buchanan started fighting for back in the ’70s, they’re still going on.
Heather Taylor:How much has changed between the original formation of Ethical versus right now? I think a lot of the things are pretty much the same.
Kameel Stanley:Heather Taylor served as president of the Ethical Society of Police from 2015 to 2020, and just retired after 20 years on the force, most recently as a homicide detective. Heather says Black officers still feel like outsiders in their department.
Heather Taylor:You’re talking about decades later, but you still have the same problems, the same things that exist along racial lines.
Kameel Stanley:In her time as president of the Ethical Society of Police, Heather publicly called out fellow officers for corruption, and she fought with police brass over reforms, even calling on the police chief to resign. She went against the so-called blue code of silence, publishing a 100-page report documenting racism within the department. That angered some of her fellow officers, in person and online. On Facebook, one colleague’s wife said she wanted Heather to bleed out and die. The post was liked by fellow officers.
Heather Taylor:Came up with a list of things that we needed to change in the police department, and they didn’t like it. People like to say we’re all blue. No, I’m Black. I am Black. I’m not blue. And furthermore, blue is not a person, but Black is.
Kameel Stanley:She even got pushback when she advocated for less controversial changes. Heather says there’s one simple reason why the police union keeps resisting reforms and accountability.
Heather Taylor:It’s about control. You have this power, and you’re losing this power. Now, they want everybody to wear cameras. Now, they’re going to bring in social workers to help us. That means change, because they want to stay the same.
Kameel Stanley:With more than 1,200 paid members, most of them White, the St. Louis Police Officers Association makes political endorsements and backs those endorsements with donations to candidates, who then push police-friendly legislation.
Heather Taylor:We see that this union has this power that they shouldn’t have, and this power is hurting marginalized people the most in our community. We’re trying to change this.
Kameel Stanley:We spent months trying to interview police union leaders and hear their side of the story. Shortly before airtime, Jay Schroeder agreed to talk. He’s been the president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association since 2019 and has been a cop in the city for the last 16 years. We spoke to him about systemic racism in the department, including an annual study that shows Black drivers are nearly twice as likely to be stopped as White drivers.
Jay Schroeder:That’s always been a hard thing for me to wrap my head around, is using the racial profiling data that comes out every year to quantify that racism part of it.
Kameel Stanley:We also asked about criticism from the Ethical Society of Police about inequity in recruiting and use of excessive force against Black residents.
Jay Schroeder:People always say there’s systemic racism in the police department. How? Tell me what is systemic, and what is the racism in the police department. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m just naïve.
Kameel Stanley:He said he wasn’t familiar with the history of the union’s founding or the incident at the Ninth District Station, and he rejected accusations that the police union is anti-reform or anti-accountability, despite the union’s opposition to measures like the civilian oversight board. We asked if he or the union had ever publicly condemned one of its members, even in the case of an officer-involved shooting. He said no. He explained that the union’s job is not to condemn cops or stick up for them, but to protect their legal rights.
Jay Schroeder:This statement all the time that the big, bad, White police union is always out just defending bad cops is not true. We’re giving people their due process rights, and that’s what everyone deserves, and that’s what everyone should get. No matter what you’re accused of, you should be able to have legal defense, and that’s what we provide.
Kameel Stanley:Jay says this is about a few bad apples, but reformers like James Buchanan and Heather Taylor point to the apple orchard. They say the whole thing needs to change.
Kameel Stanley:This story was produced by Reveal’s Najib Aminy. Coming up, we go back to Kayla Reed, the community organizer who found that police reforms weren’t working.
Kayla Reed:It’s been a really big week in St. Louis. This race really comes down to turnout and making sure that North City turns out.
Kameel Stanley:The police union used to drive politics in St. Louis, but not anymore. How Kayla helped flip that script, that’s next on Reveal.
Al Letson:If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcasts app on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll down to where you see write a review. And there, tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us, and, well, it really does make a difference. And if you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me, right now. Not him. You. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. All right.
Kameel Stanley:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Kameel Stanley, in for Al Letson.
Kameel Stanley:Earlier in the show, we told you about Kayla Reed. She was in her early 20s when Michael Brown was killed just a mile from where she lived. Night after night, Kayla attended protests, and soon, she was organizing them. She became a leading voice in the fight for police reforms, like that civilian oversight board we told you about earlier. But in St. Louis, police kept killing Black people, so Kayla started looking for a different way to change policing. She set out to strip the police union of its influence and began transforming herself into a political queen maker. Reporter Rebecca Rivas, with our partner the Missouri Independent, has been following Kayla’s journey over the last six years. Rebecca takes the story from here.
Rebecca Rivas:When the Ferguson uprising began, I was reporting for the St. Louis American, one of the largest Black newspapers in the country. There were multiple protests a day for months on end. I don’t remember when I first met Kayla Reed. I just remember that, all of a sudden, she was everywhere.
Audio:We got to fight back!
Kayla Reed:Got to fight for me!
Audio:We got to fight back!
Kayla Reed:Fight back!
Audio:Fight back!
Kayla Reed:Fight back!
Rebecca Rivas:Others saw her as a leader of Ferguson’s protest movement, even before she did.
Kayla Reed:We walked into this meeting, and I was like, “I called this meeting. I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell these people? I am not a protest leader. I am just-
Audio:Yes, you are.
Kayla Reed:… trying to help people stay safe. What am I supposed to be doing?”
Rebecca Rivas:She told the story on a podcast she cohosts. In the early days of the Ferguson protests, Kayla called a meeting, and protest leader Brittany Packnett Cunningham walked in. She had a poster-sized pad of paper, and she asked Kayla what her plan was.
Kayla Reed:I was like, “Damn, that’s a big-ass Post-it Note.” And she was like, “What’s the plan?” And I was like, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t have one.” And she whipped off this piece of paper and made an agenda on this piece of paper, and I was like, “Who is this? This is great. I want to do this.” I was like, “Yeah, how did you do that? Where do you get the big-ass Post-it Notes from?”
Rebecca Rivas:These days, Kayla leads so many meetings. She keeps those big Post-it Notes in her trunk all the time. From 2014 to 2016, Kayla fought for police reforms, but kept hitting walls. Well, one main wall, the police union, which had been a political powerhouse in St. Louis for nearly half a century.
Kayla Reed:They engaged in the political process to get elected officials who believe in the blue wall of silence.
Rebecca Rivas:Kayla was young, 26, and barely thought of herself as a leader. Going up against the union was never going to be a fair fight, but that didn’t stop her.
Audio:Okay. Well, we’re ready to get started. Kayla Reed is an organizer with the organization [crosstalk].
Rebecca Rivas:In June 2016, Kayla organized a debate for candidates running for city prosecutor. She was trying to flip the script on the police union by becoming a political player, too. The event drew hundreds of young people, which never happens in this kind of race.
Audio:Please give Ms. Kayla Reed a round of applause. Kayla, would you stand?
Rebecca Rivas:Kayla knew that the next city prosecutor would play a big role in holding the police accountable, so she co-sponsored the event with the Coalition of Faith Organizations, unions, and criminal justice reformers who were looking for a candidate willing to go after the police.
Kayla Reed:This question is for you, Ms. Gardner. What did you mean in your response when you said, “The new reality of criminal prosecution in a post-Ferguson era”?
Kim Gardner:Well, we talk about what happened after Ferguson. We heard many people say we have to do something different. Jennifer Joyce, I respect [crosstalk].
Rebecca Rivas:One of the candidates, Kim Gardner, said things others didn’t, like that we needed to tear down the criminal justice system and address the root causes of crime. A month later, Kayla rallied the coalition to throw their support behind Kim Gardner.
Kayla Reed:We decided to say, “Well, how can we put our hands on the scale? We’re organizers. We talk to people, we mobilize them to action. Can we mobilize them to take an action and vote a particular way?”
Rebecca Rivas:It worked. Gardner won the election, becoming the first African-American to hold the seat. The union led an aggressive campaign against her. She won without their endorsement.
Rebecca Rivas:I spoke to Gardner about that moment. She told me that, even before she took office, leaders at the police union started pushing back.
Kim Gardner:Individuals basically said, “Now that you’ve won, what are you going to do for the police?” And gave me a list of directives that if I did not adhere to these directives of never holding a police accountable, making them feel like they could do whatever, in so many words, I’m paraphrasing, they would make sure I’ll never get elected again, they would make sure my job is difficult. And they would make sure that, basically, there was repercussions, and that’s what has happened day one.
Rebecca Rivas:Jay Schroeder wasn’t the president of the police union back then, but when we talked to him about Gardner’s claim, he said he didn’t think it was true. What we do know is that, within a year, the police union was in court arguing that Gardner couldn’t investigate officers for excessive use of force. That case went all the way up to the Missouri Supreme Court. Gardner won the case.
Rebecca Rivas:She wanted to take over investigating cases of police misconduct and excessive force, instead of letting police investigate themselves. Kayla wanted that, too. But they needed an ally in the mayor’s office. For Kayla, Tishaura Jones, the city’s treasurer, was the woman for the job, and the primary was just five months away.
Kayla Reed:1,500 people came to the debate. She walked out the clear winner when we did an exit poll. We did a lot of digital organizing, we did some field work, fundraising, et cetera. She was doing so well.
Rebecca Rivas:Less than a year after wading into city politics, Kayla had a real shot at getting a new mayor elected, but it didn’t work out.
Audio:You see the numbers there, Tishaura Jones actually came in second. She lost by less than 2% to Krewson. Also, of course, many folks [crosstalk].
Rebecca Rivas:Tishaura lost by less than 900 votes. Kayla was crushed.
Kayla Reed:It was hard, because I thought we did everything we could do. Now, I realize we didn’t do much of anything that we could do.
Rebecca Rivas:In that 2017 mayor’s race, Kayla thinks they knocked on about 1,000 doors. If they were going to become real political players, they needed to bulk up, because in a year, there was an election Kayla was not willing to lose.
Kayla Reed:I knew the minute I started doing elections that 2018 was going to be on my radar, because we needed to take out Bob McCulloch. He needed to be gone.
Rebecca Rivas:Bob McCulloch was the county prosecutor. He managed the grand jury process after Ferguson, where they chose not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.
Kayla Reed:I said at the time, a glass of water could’ve run against Bob McCulloch. I would’ve campaigned for it.
Rebecca Rivas:It was a harder lift than the mayor’s race, because St. Louis County is more conservative than the Democratic city it borders. Bob McCulloch was the status quo candidate who had been in office since 1991, so it shocked the region when Kayla’s candidate, Wesley Bell, won the race. The election happened on August 7th, 2018, almost four years to the day after Michael Brown was killed, making Wesley Bell the first African-American to be elected prosecutor for St. Louis County.
Rebecca Rivas:Across the country, as more African-Americans were killed by police, people started looking to Kayla and the group she co-founded, Action St. Louis, for guidance. Leaders in cities including Minneapolis, Detroit, and Miami, reached out to Kayla’s group, wanting to know how they could make change happen in their cities faster.
Kayla Reed:Now, what we’re seeing is folks are skipping that stage that Ferguson went through, this reform period, and they’re like, “Okay, we saw that that didn’t work. How do we get to where you are quicker with rethinking the way that we define safety and starting to line up our budget to those demands?”
Kayla Reed:Good morning! Can you hear me? Good morning.
Rebecca Rivas:On a Saturday morning in March, Kayla greets a group of volunteers at a park in North St. Louis. The election for mayor is just a month away, and Kayla is again trying to get Tishaura Jones elected.
Kayla Reed:It’s a great day to get Tishaura Jones promoted in the 5th Ward.
Rebecca Rivas:She gives them a pep talk before everyone spreads out to canvas a major Black neighborhood.
Kayla Reed:It’s been a really big week in St. Louis, and this race really comes down to turnout and making sure that North City turns out.
Rebecca Rivas:Kayla’s group has been knocking on 1,000 doors a day, unlike the 1,000 doors total they knocked on in 2017. As the election was heating up, I spoke to Tishaura Jones about the role that Kayla and Action St. Louis are playing in the mayor’s race. She told me Kayla’s group is becoming a make-or-break force in St. Louis politics.
Tishaura Jones:Citywide, no one matches their ground game. No one matches their effort. They are becoming the endorsement to have or the backing to have in order to get elected.
Rebecca Rivas:If she wins, Tishaura has committed to creating an independent unit to investigate officer-involved shootings, and she told me she plans to go through the public safety budget with a fine-tooth comb.
Tishaura Jones:We spend $250 million on public safety every year, and what is our return on that investment?
Rebecca Rivas:Tishaura wants to defund the police, meaning that she wants to take some money away from policing and put it towards things she believes get at the root causes of crime, like affordable housing, jobs, healthcare, and services for mental health and drug addiction.
Kayla Reed:I think the police are terrified of Tishaura Jones’s candidacy, because they see her like they see Black protestors.
Kayla Reed:That is my most poetic statement. We are now drinking.
Audio:And to movement. To movement, action.
Kayla Reed:To movement.
Rebecca Rivas:It’s Tuesday, April 6th, election night. The polls closed about an hour ago. Kayla and her team are gathered at their office for a celebratory drink after months of hard work.
Kayla Reed:Four years ago, we lost, and for four years, we have built, and I hope that tonight, when Tishaura wins, if she wins, Lord let her win, that folks know that movement did it.
Rebecca Rivas:She says they knocked on 25,000 doors, made over 230,000 calls, and sent about 100,000 text messages. They’re hoping it’ll be enough.
Kayla Reed:Ooh, that’s close.
Rebecca Rivas:For more than an hour, Kayla and her team click refresh on laptops and phones, hoping for election results. Eventually, she gets on a Zoom with other organizers around town, trying to get intel.
Kayla Reed:Tishaura is less than 1,000 ahead. I’m trying to figure out what’s still out.
Audio:I know. That’s what I was just getting deets on. What I was told is that all except for 12 are still out.
Rebecca Rivas:At 9:30, results are in.
Audio:I see final unofficial results.
Kayla Reed:Wait, where? Drop the link. Just drop the link. Just drop the link.
Audio:There!
Audio:She won, she won, she won!
Rebecca Rivas:Tishaura Jones won. She’ll be the first Black woman to lead the city. Kayla’s covering her face. She’s crying. Her partner is holding her.
Audio:Yeah, Kayla. You did it, Kayla.
Audio:Cheers, y’all.
Audio:Cheers.
Audio:Cheers.
Kayla Reed:I am crying because-
Audio:Take your time.
Kayla Reed:… I just remember what it felt like. So much is possible.
Rebecca Rivas:More than six years ago, Ferguson launched a movement, and slowly, piece by piece, it’s changing this city.
Kayla Reed:She won! She won. Dear God.
Rebecca Rivas:Tishaura Jones took office on April 20th. Kayla is part of her transition team.
Kameel Stanley:That story was reported by Rebecca Rivas, from our partners at the Missouri Independent.
Kameel Stanley:Earlier in the show, we told you about Heather Taylor, who used to run the Ethical Society of Police, the Black police union here in St. Louis. Since taking office, Mayor Jones has tapped Heather to help lead the city’s Public Safety Department. But while St. Louis is poised to make big changes to policing, the Missouri state legislature is expected to pass a bill that would make that harder, one that could prevent municipalities from cutting public safety budgets. It’s a direct response to the kinds of reforms promised in St. Louis. The legislation also includes a so-called bill of rights for law enforcement officers. It does things like limit the length of police misconduct investigations, which even the police chief in St. Louis says would make it harder to hold officers accountable.
Kameel Stanley:If you want to hear more stories about complex people, places, and systems, check out the podcast my team makes at Witness Docs from Stitcher. Our lead producer for this week’s show is Najib Aminy. Brett Myers edited the show with help from Andy Donohue and Taki Telonidis. Kenya Vaughn provided editorial support for today’s show. Thanks also to Fred Sweets at the St. Louis American and to Jason Hancock at the Missouri Independent. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson and Amita Ganatra. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our acting CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor in chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning.
Kameel Stanley:Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Kameel Stanley, filling in for Al Letson, who ends every show with, “And remember, there’s always more to the story.” Yeah, that was fun.
Audio:From PRX.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

Trey Bundy is a reporter for Reveal, covering youth. After beginning his career at the San Francisco Chronicle, he joined The Bay Citizen, where he covered child welfare, juvenile justice, education and crime. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, SF Weekly, The Huffington Post, the PBS NewsHour, Planet magazine and other news outlets. He has won three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2009, he won the national Hearst Journalism Award for article of the year. Bundy has a bachelor's degree in journalism from San Francisco State University. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Myers is a senior radio editor for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Andrew Donohue is the executive editor, projects for Reveal. He works with the audience team to find out what the public needs from – and what it can contribute to – our reporting. Stories Donohue has reported and edited have led to criminal charges, firings and reforms in public housing, pesticide use, sexual harassment and labor practices, among other areas. As a reporter and editor, he’s won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and others. Previously, Donohue helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, a pioneering local news startup. He was a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, where he worked on deepening engagement with investigative reporting. He serves on the IRE board of directors. 

Taki Telonidis is the senior supervising editor for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Brett Simpson (she/her) is an assistant producer for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism. Simpson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.