St. Louis police Lt. Col. Lawrence O'Toole.
Who do you have to tear gas to make police chief in this city?
Fresh off overseeing the successful mass arrests of hundreds of people for protesting the acquittal of a white ex-cop
in the point-blank killing of a black man, the manhandling of pastors
, the pepper spraying of journalists
, the career-ending beating of an undercover city cop
, the terrorizing of businesses
and, yes, the flooding neighborhoods with smoke and tear gas
, St. Louis police Lt. Col. Lawrence O'Toole felt he had done all he could to lock up the job.
But then, according to O'Toole's lawsuit against the city, everything got all racial.
The suit, which was first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
, notes that O'Toole was the acting police chief in late 2017 when he joined other candidates for the permanent job at public forums. Ex-city cop Jason Stockley had been found not guilty of murder that September for killing Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, and people still hadn't moved on.
O'Toole says those forums were setup.
"These meetings were conducted in a way designed to humiliate and embarrass the Plaintiff on the basis of his race," the lawsuit says. "The Defendants failed to control the meetings and their participants so that the meetings were chaotic and Plaintiff was denied the opportunity to participate in a fair and meaningful way."
Throughout the hot weeks of the protests, O'Toole had preferred to speak to the people through press conferences, press releases and the actions of his riot police. While his proxies on the SWAT team
and "civil disobedience" unit were out greeting the public in a way that a federal judge described
as "arbitrary and retaliatory," O'Toole had generally stayed out of shouting distance from his critics.
But the forums brought him in front of people who not only did not appreciate the beauty of a well-executed kettle, they wanted him to be fired. He was shouted down
at a public meeting in December 2017 at Saint Louis University Law School. Protesters let the other five finalists speak, including a white major from Dallas' police department, but they heckled him as he tried to present himself as a champion of community policing.
Less than two weeks later, on December 27, 2017, the city picked Major John Hayden, who is black, as its next chief. O'Toole says Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told him, "If Jason Stockley didn't happen you would be the police chief."
The department's response to the Stockley protests has indeed left a legacy. The city and O'Toole are now the targets of more than twenty civil lawsuits
, filed on behalf of protesters and others who say they were pepper sprayed, arrested and, in some cases, beaten by police. One suit filed names nearly 350 city police officers
, including O'Toole, alleging they illegally conspired to arrest and abuse protesters during the demonstrations.
Attorney Javad Khazaeli of Khazaeli Wyrsch LLC
is representing many of the people who were arrested or otherwise targeted by police during the demonstrations and are now suing the city. He’s also representing Milton Green, a black St. Louis police officer who was off-duty
when a police chase cut through his neighborhood. Responding officers at first ordered him to the ground, but then let him up after figuring out who he was. Green was talking to the other officers when a white officer named Christopher Tanner burst onto the scene and shot him.
"O’Toole was in charge when Luther Hall, an undercover black police officer, was beaten by SLMPD officers who tried to cover it up," Khazaeli says. "O’Toole was in charge when Milton Green, an off-duty black police officer, was shot by a white police officer, and O’Toole tried to cover it up by lying about the circumstances of when Milton was shot when he knew Milton was shot by friendly fire."
If anything, the city has supported O'Toole in court. Khazaeli says city attorneys have spent the past two years arguing none of the police under the former acting chief did anything wrong.
"You have to respect the cajones of an officer who oversaw the systematic racial oppression perpetrated by the police to now claim he was the true victim of reverse racism," Khazaeli adds. "Hopefully, the city will stop talking out of both sides of its mouth."
The tally of lawsuits include one filed by Detective Luther Hall, who says officers "beat the fuck out of him like Rodney King
" while he was posing as protester. Officers kicked him, smashed his cell phone with a baton and picked him up and slammed on the pavement — twice — causing life-altering back injuries, according to his suit. The U.S. Attorney filed federal charges against five city cops accused of pummeling Hall or covering it up. Two have pleaded guilty
, and the others are still awaiting trial.
The case included text messages of indicted officers gleefully chatting
about whipping the hell out of protesters. The morning after the attack on Hall and mass arrests of people trapped in a police kettle, O'Toole bragged
that "police owned the night."
Police fired tear gas canisters into the streets of the Central West End on September 15, 2017.
When that kind of leadership failed to land him him the job, O'Toole began connecting the dots. Represented by Stockley's attorney, Neil Brutranger, the former acting chief alleges that it's clear he was passed over for the permanent position because he is white.
"The promoting/hiring process occurred during and shortly after the Stockley riots which were racially motivated," the lawsuit says. "This public unrest created a motivation on the part of the Defendants to refuse to promote the Plaintiff and such animus arose from the Plaintiff's race."
O'Toole previewed the lawsuit
in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2018. He's now suing the city and his new boss, Chief Hayden. He alleges Hayden retaliated against him by withholding a $6,000 pay raise increase from money approved by voters and awarded in July 2018 to every other member of the department.
All of this adds up to a "hostile work environment because of his national origin and race," the suit says.
"As a result of Defendants actions and failure to act, Plaintiff has lost and continues to lose wages and other financial incidents and benefits of employment, has experienced non-diagnosed emotional pain, suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life, and has incurred and will continue to incur attorney’s fees and costs in connection with this matter," suit says.
O'Toole is asking for at least $25,000 and other "declaratory and injunctive relief" to make this right.
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to include comments from an attorney who has sued the city on behalf of people who say they were abused by police on O'Toole's watch.
We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at email@example.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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