The IHOP in question is near the St. Louis Galleria.
The mayor of Clayton says an incident involving a group of black college students wrongly suspected of dining-and-dashing at IHOP was not, in fact, a case of racially biased policing.
That conclusion came in a report issued Saturday, which details the police department's response to a 911 call shortly after midnight on July 7. The caller, a manager at the IHOP on Clayton Road, had reported that four young men, all African American, had skipped out on a $62 bill.
When officers from the St. Louis suburb were dispatched to the area, they eventually stopped a group of Washington University students walking from the area near the restaurant toward a nearby Metrolink station. There were ten students in the group, and some were carrying IHOP "to-go" bags.
The students, who are black, provided receipts to the officers. The officers then walked them back to the store, where a manager confirmed that they weren't the culprits.
The incident attracted widespread condemnation after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch broke the story, and the ensuing outrage resulted in an apology from Clayton's city manager. However, Mayor Harold Sanger's review argues for a different conclusion: It notes that some of the students "matched the clothing color, gender and race description of the four suspects provided by IHOP." And it insists that the stop was made in good faith.
The entire interaction between police and students took twelve minutes, the report says. And it pushes back on a critical assumption made by many who criticized the incident: It states that it was the students who insisted on returning to the store to resolve the issue in person, not police.
The report notes, "The officers did not require or suggest that the students return to IHOP. The officer in command of the incident radioed requesting that another officer convey the IHOP manager to the location of the students at Brentwood Blvd. and Galleria Parkway for an identification. On hearing this, at least one of the students offered that they would prefer to walk back to the restaurant, and the officers agreed. Our officers believed that walking back was the preference of the students. Had they believed otherwise, they would have continued with their original plan, and brought the manager to the students."
The report also says that accounts that the students were followed by multiple police cars on their walk back to the restaurant were incorrect: Only one police car was involved, it was 75 feet behind, and it only had "rear-facing hazard lights on for safety purposes."
"Given all these circumstances," the mayor's report continues, "the investigation found that initiating contact with this group was in keeping with policies and procedures."
But the report, which can be read in full here, goes further than simply describing the investigation's results and compiling evidence. It also pushes back on statements issued by Clayton City Manager Craig Owens shortly after the story broke.
It was Owens who issued the apology in the Post-Dispatch, saying, "It is clear to us that we mishandled the interaction with these ten Washington University students and lacked sensitivity about their everyday reality because of how racial bias affects their lives. For that, on behalf of the City of Clayton, we sincerely apologize."
Mayor Sanger's report doesn't mention Owens by name, but it does say that "the police... felt wronged by elements of an early statement issued by the City, which incorrectly made judgments about their conduct before an investigation had been completed."
While the report attempts to clear the officers' conduct in the July 7 incident — and deflecting criticism of the department — it also goes out of its way to acknowledge "the growing gap around the nation between police and their communities."
Mayor Sanger writes, "The public reaction to this incident tells us that this gap is as real and persistent right here in Clayton as it is anywhere else."
In that vein, Sanger says the department is working to improve relations with its minority residents and visitors, and that it contracted an outside review of its policies by 21st Century Policing Solutions, which recommended Clayton police equip its officers with body cameras.
The department now says that it will be implementing a body camera program next year.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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