ACLU Sues St. Louis County Police Department Over Sunshine Law in Racial Profiling Case
Update below: In May, we wrote about the controversy surrounding Patrick Hayes, a St. Louis county police lieutenant who is accused of ordering cops to profile minorities for arrests, allegedly making statements like "Let's have a black day" and "Let's make the jail cells more colorful."
Lt. Patrick Hayes.
Since the case first made headlines, the whistleblower who made the allegations has come forward and the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri has also pursued records in this case through the state's Sunshine Law. Sgt. Daniel O'Neil, who wrote anonymous letters to higher-ups, has filed a formal discrimination complaint against the county police department -- and today the ACLU-EM announced it has also filed a lawsuit, alleging that the department is violating Missouri's records law by refusing to hand over documents.
"We are very disappointed," Grant Doty, staff attorney with the ACLU-EM, tells Daily RFT. "We were very patient in trying to work with them.... Our last resort was a lawsuit."
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As we reported earlier this year, Hayes was fired in the spring after allegations surfaced that he had ordered those in his command in the fourth precinct to prioritize arresting black individuals in the area of South County Center. (County police officials have called the actions an "anomaly," while attorneys for Hayes have argued that the complaints came from officers with a vendetta against him).
The ACLU-EM, which has worked to highlight racial profiling practices of local law enforcement officials, first requested public records tied to this case in February. The civil rights organization was interested in obtaining a copy of the anonymous letter sent to the department that outlined the allegations of racial profiling.
Department officials, however, refused to release any records, the ACLU says in a new lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County's 21st Judicial Circuit on Friday. The full petition is on view below.
"They may feel that it will be embarrassing. They may feel that the document will reflect poorly on the department," Doty says, "but none of those are exceptions that the statute recognizes."
via St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch.
The ACLU argues that the documents in question are clearly subject to public disclosure and that under Missouri law, the department should have complied within three days.
"It protects the citizens right to know," Doty says of the Sunshine Law, adding, "Open government is the best government."
He says that the ACLU-EM has filed similar suits regarding public records against the city police department but not against county police in recent years, if ever.
"If we don't fight this, then the average citizen who is entitled to get documents just as much as the ACLU is will give up," he adds. "Then the accountability that this law was intended to promote is going to be harmed."
Daily RFT reached out to a county police spokesman this morning and will update if the department has any response to the complaint.
Meanwhile, O'Neil, the whistleblower in this case, has filed his own complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that officials have retaliated against him for speaking up.
Update, 12:56 p.m.: A spokesman with the county police department tells us in an e-mail that the "the decision not to release the document was made by the St. Louis County Counselor's Office and not the Police Department." Daily RFT just left a message with the counselor's office and will update if we hear back.
Here's a copy of the ACLU-EM's petition.