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Elected as a Progressive Reformer, Kim Gardner's First 21 Months Have Featured Chaos and Conflict



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Spokesman Jeff Roorda says Gardner has "completely ruined" the relationship with the city's police union. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Spokesman Jeff Roorda says Gardner has "completely ruined" the relationship with the city's police union.

Within hours of the Post-Dispatch story going live, Jeff Roorda is on the steps of the courthouse, bashing Gardner.

Roorda, the police union's business agent, is possibly the nation's most fervent believer that there is a war on police. (A portion of the sales of his book, called Ferghanistan: The War on Police, were dedicated to ex-Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, who killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in 2014.) The exclusion list is, to his mind, further proof that cops are under attack. He claims the list put a dangerous city in even greater peril and torched the last shreds of a relationship between Gardner and officers.

"She's completely ruined it," Roorda says. "There is no relationship."

The list itself was not part of the leak, and the union spokesman says if the names are made public, it could destroy the careers of officers who haven't had the opportunity to challenge or even hear the allegations against them.

And Gardner has more problems than Roorda. Police Chief John Hayden initially puts out a noncommittal statement, only to come out swinging after Gardner claims police had requested the list.

"No leaders from our department asked the Circuit Attorney's Office to compile an exclusion list, nor do we have any need for such a list," he wrote, directly contradicting Gardner. "I was quite surprised to have received it."

Hayden went on to say there was "no indication the list was properly vetted," noting that six of the officers didn't even work for the department any more and several others had been investigated and cleared. "This list is an unnecessary overreach which would be better handled on a case-by-case basis."

Gardner responds shortly after with her third statement in three days.

"If Chief Hayden is unaware of the details regarding our concerns with the credibility of some of his officers, then he needs to look no further for the information than from his own command staff," Gardner's statement said. "We have documented communications between our Chief Warrant Officer and the Commander of Professional Standards regarding this issue."

Prosecutors around the country have long kept at least mental notes about which officers they do and don't trust. Often it is an unspoken designation, but lists exist and are sometimes made public. Philadelphia's new district attorney, a longtime civil rights lawyer, released his predecessor's secret list to defense attorneys this spring. He has also promised to build an even larger database of sketchy cops and share it with defense attorneys. An accounting of less-than-credible officers will ultimately help the police department, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"They need to know that so that they don't put an officer whose credibility is in question in a position, when they could have put an officer deemed credible, [and] thereby mess up a case," he said.

The Ethical Society of Police, which represents black cops locally, defended Gardner. "No doubt, the Circuit Attorney's Office has some problems," the organization tweeted. "However, officers invoking the 5th instead of testifying is really alarming because of our oath to uphold the law. How can you take verbal testimony/written reports by them in criminal cases at face value going forward?"

Roorda wouldn't discuss specifics about any officers on the list, and neither would Gardner, saying only that it is essential that prosecutors can trust the testimony of police when pursuing cases.

"A police officer's word, and the complete veracity of that word, is fundamentally necessary to doing the job," she wrote in one statement. "Therefore, any break in trust must be approached with deep concern. When we prosecute a case, we have the potential to take someone's liberty from them."

Gardner says the job of prosecutors has become more complex in the era after the death of Michael Brown. "Post-Ferguson" is a term she uses multiple times in her 75-minute interview with the RFT.

There is new scrutiny of mass incarceration, dubious convictions and a cash-bail system that keeps the poor in jail for minor offenses. Old-school lock-'em-up tactics are no longer acceptable.

"If we look at arrest rates and prosecution rates, St. Louis city has sent more people to prison than any other jurisdiction in Missouri," she says. "So if that equals a safer city, we should be the safest city in America."

Whether that will change significantly on her watch remains to be seen. So far, adversaries and allies describe mixed results. Gardner's decision to stop prosecuting mid-level marijuana-possession cases will undoubtedly keep more than a few offenders out of the system. But defense lawyers have felt some of the same frustrations as they did with previous administrations.

Mary Fox, who leads the public defender's office in St. Louis, won a court order in 2015 to force Jennifer Joyce to stop removing witnesses' addresses and other information from reports given to defense attorneys. Fox had hoped evidence and reports would flow more quickly when Gardner took over, but it seemed worse, often in haphazard ways. In April, Fox filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the court to find that Gardner was violating the original order. The office was doing such a bad job of turning over required evidence, she alleged, that the judge needed to force the circuit attorney to implement basic training for her young staff.

"I may not like Jennifer Joyce's management style, but at least she had some management," Fox told the RFT in May. "There was clear supervision and training of her staff members."

Gardner bristles at mention of the petition, noting that Fox's office has plenty of turnover and new lawyers, too. She says the claims are routine gamesmanship: "This is the same argument she [Fox] uses every year or two years."

But Fox says the failures of Gardner's office are real, and have had the effect of keeping low-income defendants in jail for months on end, despite no finding of guilt. "A writ is an extraordinary remedy, and we only do it when there are extraordinary circumstances," she adds.

Still, both agree that the situation has gotten better in recent weeks. Gardner now has a centralized unit dedicated to handle discovery, and Fox says long-running negotiations with the circuit attorney's senior staff have yielded results. "It has gotten significantly better," Fox says. "It isn't perfect yet, but it is moving in the right direction."

Gardner says she has focused on violence and the "crime drivers" who are responsible for the bulk of the city's mayhem: "We want to identify those individuals and prosecute those individuals to the fullest."

In a growing number of cases, however, the Circuit Attorney's Office doesn't prosecute them at all. Instead, Gardner has been handing off cases to the feds. Under new U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen, federal prosecutors in St. Louis have nearly doubled their criminal caseload. Between January and June, 2,389 defendants were charged in the federal system, compared to 1,444 during the same period last year. Meanwhile, Gardner's office is on pace for about 4,600 cases in 2018, a drop from the roughly 5,500 notched by Joyce's prosecutors in 2015.

Jensen says his office and the circuit attorney's are in contact nearly every day, talking about cases and strategies. "The close coordination between the supervisors has never been as close as it is now," Jensen says.

And while critics grouse that the feds are just cleaning up for an inept local prosecutor, Jensen says Gardner is off to a good start. He says his office has the benefit of greater resources, including an excellent probation department, leading to far lower recidivism rates.

The feds also have the hammer of far harsher sentences. There is no parole in the federal system, and there is also no local federal prison. That means a robber who might have done less than ten years down the road in Pacific could spend twice as much time at a facility in Michigan or Texas, far away from family visits.

At the same time, Jensen says he and Gardner both work with the Urban League, Better Family Life and other social-service organizations to promote alternatives to the crime and punishment.

Gardner says she is also working closely with the police department's gang officers to build new intel while also expanding a Crime Strategies Unit to focus on the city's most violent offenders.

"At the same time," she says, "we also have to reduce harm by making sure we don't put the wrong people in the system with this heavy touch."

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