Human Rights

Police Boast New Informant App Caught First 'Criminal': Man Panhandling

The St. Louis police department has a troubling history of cracking down on homeless and poor people.

Photo Credit: Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Sam Dotson has been hitting the media circuit to spread the word about the agency’s new mobile app, which allows ordinary residents to become law enforcement informants with the swipe of an iPhone. Now he has a public uproar on his hands after boasting last Thursday that the app had, for the first time since its May 23 launch, led to the arrest of a “criminal”—a panhandling man.

Needless to say, Dotson’s public relations move backfired. Here is just one of the angry responses he received over Twitter:

"This comes at a time when the chief has just announced the crackdown on the homeless in the downtown area,” explained John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. Many believe that the escalation is part of an effort to sanitize the area at the behest of businesses, and at the expense of poor people in the city, Chasnoff told AlterNet.

Such suspicion is understandable. In October 2005, the SLMPD settled a lawsuit filed by over a dozen people who charged that police have a policy of “attempting to drive the homeless from downtown St. Louis and telling them downtown is ‘off limits’ to them,” according to a statement from the Missouri ACLU.

According to the plaintiffs—all homeless people—police have “routinely arrested the homeless without any suspicion they have committed crimes, have thrown fireworks at them to get them to move from a public park, have taken the homeless to remote areas and dumped them, have taken their food, medication, driver's licenses and insurance cards, have made them engage in forced labor prior to ever seeing a judge, and have generally attempted to remove the homeless from downtown, particularly before major events.”

In light of this history, outcry over the police department’s latest arrest is mounting, a significant development given that the SLMPD is the first agency in Missouri to use the technology. Public outrage already nabbed the headline in the St. Louis Dispatch, “Police in St. Louis make first arrest from new app, drawing Twitter hate.” In that article, Dotson sought to defend the department by claiming that the man had also been trespassing, declaring, “It just shows that you can’t put context in 140 characters.”

Yet the larger context of policing in St. Louis is troubling. Thomas Harvey, executive director of the advocacy organization Arch City Defenders, told AlterNet, “We're talking about an area in the city of St. Louis where wealthy people routinely violate open container laws and urinate in public. I doubt the app will be used to report wealthy white people spilling out of bars in Washington Avenue.”

“To the degree that this is reflective of broken windows policing, it is important to note that the theory has been thoroughly debunked,” Harvey added. "This is a crackdown on the most vulnerable people in society."

In addition, the SLMPD has a history of so-called preemptive policing that is marred by racial profiling. According to a recent report by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, black drivers are 1.4 times more likely to be stopped by the SLMPD than the general population, compared to 0.7 times for white drivers.

The informant app was launched in the immediate aftermath of a complaint filed under the new Civilian Oversight Board, in which Chassity Norise accused the department of raiding her home without warning, filling it with smoke bombs and forcing residents to stand outside naked. "I felt completely violated being outside naked with my neighbors watching me and my home being kicked down on false allegations," she said.

The SLMPD is asking the public to share information about city residents, declaring in a Facebook post that the app “puts your police department in your fingertips.” Yet the agency is allegedly refusing to share basic information with the public about its own officers’ misconduct. According to a lawsuit recently filed by the ACLU, the department is refusing to release public records related to the case of Curtis Farber, who claims he was brutally beaten and threatened by St. Louis police three years ago.

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.