The beating of Gregory Bell by St. Louis police in 1997 prompted a civil lawsuit against the police that was settled out of court last summer. The terms of the settlement were supposed to be secret, although word quickly leaked that the police gave $250,000 to the mentally retarded Bell, who was beaten in his own home after accidentally setting off an alarm and being mistaken for a burglar by the city's finest.
Turns out there was a bit more to the settlement than money.
The police were required to improve training so that officers could better deal with mentally ill and developmentally disabled people. This was done.
The cops were also supposed to simplify the complaint process against themselves and issue a press release informing the press and the public that complaint forms are available at every police station. Furthermore, the police were supposed to tell the public that forms could be mailed to the department's internal-affairs division, giving complainants the opportunity to take forms home and make copies for their own records.
The police didn't do this, so early this year, attorneys for Bell filed a federal-court motion which included the previously sealed settlement to compel the cops to make good on their promise to revise complaint procedures.
Under the system described in the police manual, a person with a beef against an officer is supposed to complain to internal affairs at the department's downtown headquarters. Police officers, not citizens, fill out the forms, according to the manual. There are no provisions allowing citizens to retain copies. And the police department won't release complaints and investigative files to the public.
After J. Justin Meehan, Bell's attorney, asked the federal court to enforce the settlement, Chief Ron Henderson on May 3 issued an all-hands memo ordering his troops, effective immediately, to keep complaint forms at the front desk of every patrol station and issue them to anyone who asks. The memo also notifies officers that complaints may be mailed directly by citizens to the department's internal-affairs division.
Manual procedures notwithstanding, the police say this is the way things have always been. Department spokeswoman Adella Jones says the chief's memo was simply a reminder.
The chief himself says he wants the complaint process to be as open and easy as possible. A visit to internal affairs can be intimidating, he says, not to mention inconvenient. That's why he wants to move the internal-affairs division out of downtown headquarters and closer to the center of the city.
"I've had it expressed to me before: People say, "Hey, I want to make a complaint, but I'm afraid to come down to that building,'" Henderson says. "We don't want those kind of obstacles. If there are citizens who are out there who feel they've been mistreated and want to voice a complaint, then certainly we want to make the process as simple as possible."
Under a court order signed July 30, the department has until Nov. 25 to issue a press release outlining complaint procedures. Henderson says he hasn't done so yet because he hasn't had time and doesn't want the public to confuse the Bell case with the case of Julius Thurman, who died of massive head injuries last April after, police say, he was found trying to burglarize a pawnshop. Officer Robert Dodson has been charged with murdering Thurman.
"I didn't want it to look like this case had something to do with that case," Henderson says. "We will do it, and we will do it before November."