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Black Women Prosecutors Rally Behind St. Louis Circuit Attorney Over Racist Backlash

Top prosecutors in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City are supporting Kim Gardner over the “entrenched interests” that they say seek to undermine reforms and police accountability.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Office/Facebook

Black Women Prosecutors Rally Behind St. Louis Circuit Attorney Over Racist Backlash

Top prosecutors in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City are supporting Kim Gardner over the “entrenched interests” that they say seek to undermine reforms and police accountability.

Nearly a dozen Black women elected prosecutors from across the country are standing with Kim Gardner, the top prosecutor in St. Louis, who has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging city officials and police unions have engaged in a “racially-motivated conspiracy” to oust her from office.

“Circuit Attorney Gardner received a clear mandate from the voters of St. Louis to enact meaningful reforms and upend a broken criminal justice system that criminalizes poverty, disproportionately impacts communities of color and undermines public safety,” they said in a joint statement released on Tuesday. “The Circuit Attorney has delivered on those promises, and that is exactly why she has faced an unprecedented campaign by the city’s corrupt and racist political establishment to destroy her.”

Gardner’s peers said her experience is “emblematic of the types of attacks that we, as Black women prosecutors, have faced around the country.”

The statement was signed by 11 prosecutors, including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark, Portsmouth, Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

Many of them convened Tuesday at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis to support Gardner, who took office in 2017 and is the city’s first Black woman elected circuit attorney. She has embraced pro-reform efforts, such as incarcerating fewer people for low-level marijuana offenses and holding officers accountable for violence, racial bias, and other misconduct. Last year, Gardner excluded 22 St. Louis Division of Police officers from presenting cases to her office, after the Plain View Project accused them of making racist Facebook posts. After the officers were exposed, few faced reprimand or termination.

Gardner’s peers said her experience is “emblematic of the types of attacks that we, as Black women prosecutors, have faced around the country.”

In the lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Gardner alleges that the city and St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA), among others, are violating the Ku Klux Klan Act, a federal law passed shortly after the Civil War, meant to deter white citizens and government officials from conspiring to prevent the expansion of civil rights and equality for Black citizens.

“The Ku Klux Klan Act was adopted to address precisely this scenario: a racially-motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by obstructing a government official’s efforts to ensure equal justice under law for all,” Gardner’s lawsuit states. “The stakes are high. This case cries out for federal enforcement.”

The lawsuit also cites a current investigation into Gardner over her handling of a case involving former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, a Republican who was accused of attempting to use compromising photos to silence a woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair. (He resigned over the scandal in 2018.) Following allegations that a case investigator committed perjury in a deposition, Gardner dropped felony invasion of privacy charges against Greitens. But a judge granted a motion by the St. Louis Division of Police to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her office, though she is not accused of any crimes. 

The move is “highly unusual,” says Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore. “Prosecutors generally receive immunity for the decisions they make in office,” Colbert told The Appeal, and an investigation is rare, “particularly after [Gardner recognized] the necessity of withdrawing charges based on one of [her] witnesses committing perjury.”

After she launched the investigation into Greitens, Gardner said she received threatening letters demanding her resignation, including an anonymous handwritten note that used the N-word twice.

Gardner did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

The Appeal’s requests for comment to defendants in the lawsuit—the City of St. Louis, SLPOA executive director Jeffrey Roorda and Gerard Carmody, the special prosecutor appointed to investigate Gardner—went unanswered. However, a spokesperson for Mayor Lyda Krewson on Monday called Gardner’s allegations “meritless” and said the city “fully expects to be vindicated once this case is adjudicated in a court of law.” In a statement Monday, the SLPOA dismissed the lawsuit as “frivolous, desperate and pathetic.”

“She’s turned murderers and other violent criminals loose to prey on St. Louis’s most vulnerable citizens,” the union said in its statement, which also included a call for Gardner’s resignation.

Police unions across the country are pushing back against many pro-reform public figures and recently elected DAs who support criminal justice reforms, like ending money bail and reducing mandatory minimum sentences. State legislators in Pennsylvania attempted to strip Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner of his authority to prosecute certain gun crimes. A police union in Dallas County called for District Attorney John Creuzot’s resignation when he pledged to stop prosecuting low-level offenses, such as criminal trespass and petit larceny.

But Black women who hold top law enforcement roles face a far different and harsher backlash, said Jami Hodge, director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program at Vera Institute for Justice, which sponsored the St. Louis convening. They’re contending with sexism, racial insults and threats of violence against their children, she said. “These aren’t just the standard policy disagreements that [these women] are facing,” Hodge said.

After Mosby charged six officers involved in the fatal arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, the New York City police union magazine, “Frontline,” ran a picture of her on the cover under the words “The Wolf That Lurks.” After the rally for Gardner in St. Louis on Tuesday, Mosby released audio from a voicemail left by a woman who said she was calling from Illinois. “How dare you come to St. Louis and say you’ve got the back of that lousy bitch,” the caller said, referring to Gardner. “You hate cops, you hate white people, you do everything you can to give all the Blacks who are criminals the benefit of the doubt.” 

At an April protest over Foxx’s decision not to prosecute Jussie Smollett over a controversial case involving an alleged hate crime, an unidentified retired Chicago police officer and member of the Chicago FOP suggested that Laquan McDonald, the Black teen murdered in 2016 by former city officer Jason Van Dyke, should have been shot more than the 16 times that authorities said he was shot. 

National leaders have also denounced prosecutors who embrace reform. U.S. Attorney General William Barr indirectly criticized Rollins, who has pledged to curtail prosecution of low-level offenses that include trespassing and larceny under $250. In an August speech to the FOP, Barr said Rollins was “refusing to prosecute cases of resisting police”—a mischaracterization of Rollins’ intent to drop a resisting arrest charge in cases where that is the only charge. In December, Mark McDonald, the legislative liaison for the National FOP, tweeted that law enforcement leaders met with President Donald Trump—who has advocated for tough-on-crime policies, despite supporting sentencing reforms at the federal level—to “discuss the disturbing trend of ‘rogue’ prosecutors failing to fully prosecute violent criminals.”

“This opposition is housed in the highest levels of power,” including Barr, the Black female prosecutors said in their joint statement. “While we are working to make our communities safer and stronger, he and others will stop at nothing to tear us down and protect their power.”

The effort to fight racism and hostility against Black women in top law enforcement jobs “is going to require more than just the prosecutors,” said Hodge. “If [police] are coming after your elected progressive DA, then you should be coming back at them and using your voice at the ballot box.”

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