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Byers' Beat: The sad state of the St. Louis area's public safety infrastructure

Institutions intended to perform the very basic functions of the public safety system have been showing their weaknesses this year

ST. LOUIS — Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.

A 911 call center, jails, a juvenile detention facility: all are staples of any community's public safety infrastructure. In the St. Louis area, these institutions have been showing some of their cracks this year.

Here’s a look at the issues that have plagued the pillars of public safety, what public officials are saying, and not saying, about them and the latest developments in each.

City of St. Louis jails

This year kicked off with back-to-back riots in which guards were assaulted at the downtown City Justice Center.

Images of inmates setting fires, breaking windows, throwing debris, furniture and other items onto the street and sidewalk below made national news.

Then-Mayor Lyda Krewson formed a task force for the last few weeks of her term to study the issues driving inmates to riot.

Her Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards also admitted the locks on the cells didn’t work – and it had been that way for years.

In an exclusive interview with the I-Team, a corrections employee said all inmates needed to compromise the locks on their cells was a piece of paper.

Not long after that, the facility got an influx of new residents and an exodus of some lucrative ones.

Soon after she took office in April, Mayor Tishaura Jones declared the city’s other jail, known as the Medium Security Institution or Workhouse, was still an inhumane facility and needed to be shuttered as soon as possible. 

This, despite about $7 million in upgrades the city made following a lawsuit filed over conditions there by the ArchCity Defenders law firm.

Jones’ assessment of the place followed a tour she took alongside Congresswoman Cori Bush and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and a board member of the ArchCity Defenders law firm, which was vying for a $10 million settlement.

Jones did not allow reporters to tour the facility.

Aldermen then demanded tours of the building and disputed descriptions of inhumane conditions. Some criticized Jones for allowing a board member of the law firm suing the city to participate in the tour.

Jones stripped the facility of its budget July 1 – effectively closing it and keeping a campaign promise to do so.

That left about 150 inmates suddenly in need of a new home.

The only place to put them was the downtown facility – even though all of the locks still didn’t work, technological issues remained and it was short staffed.

A spokesman for Jones' office told me Friday that the mayor's office work to fix the locks is "in progress."

News that more inmates were headed to the downtown facility – still recovering from the riots there – prompted the feds to move about 200 of their prisoners out. Suddenly, those facing federal charges in St. Louis were no longer close to home, close to the courthouse and close to their attorneys.

Those federal inmates were spread to other federally approved facilities across the state – and sometimes out of state.

The exodus also cost the city about $8 million a year. That’s how much the federal government used to pay the city to house its prisoners.

Problems, including continued uprisings, persisted as the two populations merged, and, not long after emptying the Medium Security Institution, the city moved dozens of inmates back there.

As of this writing, about 86 remain there.

That lawsuit I mentioned earlier took a hit in court after a judge determined the clients ArchCity is representing were not incarcerated at the time the lawsuit was filed. The judge said they had no standing to complain about the conditions because they were not incarcerated at the time of the lawsuit.

The inmates, however, can still claim they were harmed when they actually were incarcerated and still seek monetary relief.

City attorneys are opposing ArchCity's efforts to amend the lawsuit to include inmates who were incarcerated at the time the lawsuit was filed in 2017.

911 call center

Some 911 callers are put on hold in the city due to a variety of factors, including dispatcher shortages and a system that funnels all calls into the police department even if it is a nonemergency or better suited for a fire or EMS dispatcher.

There has been some progress on the latter.

The city now uses an automated system that allows callers to select the type of emergency response they need – instead of depending on police dispatchers to transfer calls to EMS or fire dispatchers.

Public Safety Director Dan Isom told me the new system diverted 700 calls to fire dispatchers in one week alone.

Isom also believes consolidating the city’s 911 dispatch centers under the same roof will also help reduce wait times for callers.

Right now, the three types of dispatchers make very different salaries and belong to different unions.

When someone applies to become a dispatcher for the city, they’re likely to try out for the fire department because its starting salary is higher than a police dispatch position.

This, despite the city’s greater need for police dispatchers.

“We’re competing against ourselves,” Isom explained.

Isom said at a press conference in August he planned to consolidate the dispatchers under the same roof by October.

That deadline came and went, and negotiations are still underway to determine how best to combine dispatch positions while keeping workers’ rights and compensation protected.

Isom said the plan is to create levels of dispatchers instead of types of dispatchers.

Under the proposal, the city would essentially allow the higher-paid fire and EMS dispatchers to keep their salaries, just not their titles. 

Isom said dispatchers would be divided into levels, with a level 1 dispatcher making less than a level 3 dispatcher.

Eventually, they would just become dispatchers without a police, fire or EMS title ahead of them.

So what’s the new deadline for this plan?

“As soon as possible,” Isom said.

St. Louis County Justice Center

It seemed as though things had quieted down for the St. Louis County Justice Center in downtown Clayton this year after several years of negative headlines.

Most notably among them were reports about five inmates dying in just about as many months in 2019.

The facility catapulted its way back into the limelight in recent weeks after an attorney for two correctional officers beaten by inmates shared graphic photos of one of his clients following a Nov. 10 beating.

RELATED: Inmate charged with assaulting St. Louis County correctional officer amid staffing shortages

5 On Your Side’s Justina Coronel reported the jail is short 78 officers.

The correctional officer’s attorney, Elad Gross, said his client was supervising around 47 inmates on her own during the shift in which she was attacked.

He’s also representing another correctional officer who was assaulted by an inmate in October. Gross said she was supervising around 70 inmates when she was attacked.

RELATED: St. Louis County inmate charged with October assault of correctional officer

This week, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed charges against Zahmeen Manuel, accusing him of telling the correctional officer he planned to kill the officer and break the officer’s neck.

Gross also has problems with how his client was treated following the November assault.

"After her assault, and despite her facial swelling, loss of eyesight, difficulties responding to other staff members, and eventual inability to respond at all, she was initially transported to a non-trauma hospital by car. She was then transported by ambulance to a hospital equipped to deal with her injuries. There is no excuse for why St. Louis County staff did not immediately call for an ambulance and get Christina the medical attention she needed," Gross told 5 On Your Side.

5 On Your Side's Casey Nolen sat down Thursday with Acting Jail Director Scott Anders, who told him the jail assigns two officers per pod, which can hold up to 72 inmates.

He said most of the pods have been half full because of the pandemic and said that was the case during the most recent attack. He said three inmates were out of their cells at the time of the attack.

Anders admitted jail staff first drove the guard to the nearest hospital and she had to be transferred.

He said she refused medical treatment at least twice but ultimately agreed to go to the hospital if they would drive her and call her mom.

Gross said his client was stumbling, bleeding profusely and couldn’t remember her mother’s name or number and was in no condition to “refuse” treatment.

Anders told Nolen jail administrators are "reviewing and may make changes there, too."

St. Louis Juvenile Center

So far teens have escaped from the St. Louis Juvenile Justice Center three times this year.

One juvenile escaped twice this year.

The most recent escape involved two teens on Tuesday, including a 17-year-old facing murder charges and a 15-year-old facing tampering, resisting arrest, tampering with electronic monitoring equipment and probation violations.

Sources told me the teens were walking back from the gym at the facility on Enright Avenue when they broke a window, jumped a fence and ran off.

The facility falls under the purview of the 22nd Judicial Circuit.

A spokesman has released two statements confirming the facts of the incidents, but, so far, we're still waiting for answers to questions about what is causing the security breaches and what is being done about it.

As of this writing, the two juveniles who escaped Tuesday remain on the run.

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