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Byers' Beat: One police officer's discrimination lawsuit settles while another just gets started

New interim chief in St. Louis named, discrimination lawsuit settles for on St. Louis police commander while another begins for St. Louis County commander
Credit: UPI
Lt. Colonel Michael Sack makes his remarks after being selected as interim police chief for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, in St. Louis on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

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.

ST. LOUIS – Lt. Col. Michael Sack is now Interim Chief Michael Sack – and, according to Mayor Tishaura Jones, could become Chief Michael Sack depending on how he does during a second national search for the city’s next top cop.

So, who is he? Here’s a little more background on him.

He’s served 28 years with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Should he become chief, he will officially outrank his brother, Lt. Col. Steve Sack of the St. Louis County Police Department.

And it will also be the first time a former man of the cloth dons eagle wings on the collar of his white shirt – the shirt color reserved only for police commanders and the type of lapel pins only chiefs get to wear.

Sack has been wearing a white shirt since 2007.

I first met him in 2013, when he was the commander of the homicide division and I was looking to do a story about an organization that paired ministers with homicide victims’ families.

Then Chief Sam Dotson was eager to share Sack’s history as a former Catholic priest as a way to show his unconventional connection to the strength of spiritual guidance.

Sack didn’t want to talk about it much, telling me instead to focus on the ministers.

He went on to oversee Internal Affairs, which is where his reputation among the rank-and-file went south, according to the police union.

“Guys didn’t feel like he gave them a fair shake,” said St. Louis Police Officers Association President Jay Schroeder.

Some have suggested to me that no Internal Affairs commanders ever walk away with a good reputation among the troops.

But I do know of former Internal Affairs commanders who have walked away from that job without a reputation either way.

One of them is outgoing Chief John Hayden.

RELATED: Byers' Beat: St. Louis police chief mum on May 22 retirement date

Hayden came to Sack’s defense in 2018 after St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said Sack requested that her office create a list of officers who cannot be trusted to serve as witnesses or apply for charges against anyone they arrest.

Hayden said Sack never requested such a blacklist, which has since become known as the exclusion list.

Still, Sack’s name was on virtually every notice officers got telling them that they had been added to the list.

They’ve never been given reasons why they’ve been put on the list, their names have never been made public, and, until recently, they’ve never been able to get off the list.

In March, Sack’s name appeared on a notification at least 20 officers got earlier this year, telling them how they could get off the list.

All were involved in a series of arrests made during June 1, 2020 protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Four police officers were shot, but survived.

That September, Attorney General Eric Schmitt criticized Gardner’s office for not charging people who were arrested that night.

The police union said at least 20 officers who made those arrests then got emails from Sack notifying them that they had been added to the exclusion list.

The March email from Sack offered them a chance to get off of it.

“Recently we have been able to reach an agreement with the CAO which would remove you from the Exclusion List,” Sack wrote to the officers. “This is possible if you attend a training class titled, ‘Twenty-Four Hour Rule Training’ at the Police Academy. In order to resolve any question regarding your credibility in presenting warrant applications, seeking a search warrant, or testifying in court, which are critical to performing your duties, you are therefore required to attend this class.”

Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Hinckley taught the class.

RELATED: Attorney, Black officers' group responds to prosecutor's allegations officers lied about carjacking attempt

Sack told officers he got the class to count toward officers’ continuing education credits as well as have it certified by the Peace Officer’s Training Commission.

If he becomes chief, he will have a lot more to deal with than the exclusion list.

New lawsuit filed in St. Louis County

A St. Louis County police commander’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint I wrote about in this column last summer has now turned into a lawsuit, with added allegations involving sexual harassment that he says former Chief Mary Barton did not address and misappropriation of St. Louis County Park funds.

Earlier this week, Lt. Michael Reifscneider filed a discrimination lawsuit against the police department, accusing Barton of refusing to promote him to Captain of the West County Precinct, reducing an award for his actions during a shooting and not addressing allegations that a male lieutenant sexually harassed and engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with one or more subordinate female county park rangers.

Reifschneider alleges trouble began not long after Lt. Ray Rice, who is Black, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the department in 2020.

At the time, Rice’s performance rating was 29 out of 30, according to the lawsuit.

Reifschneider alleges Lt. Col. Bryan Ludwig told him to change Rice’s performance ratings however he saw fit – but the only change to those ratings would have been to lower them. Reifschneider said he knew it could be viewed as retaliation for Rice’s discrimination lawsuit.

He also claims Barton reduced a Distinguished Service Citation for Valor to a Chief’s Commendation for his actions during a domestic shooting. He says she delivered the award to him at his office while she was wearing sweats even though she had presented awards to others involved in the incident at a formal ceremony while Reifschneider was on vacation.

During that meeting, Reifschneider alleges Barton told him he was not promoted to captain of the West County Precinct because he refused to change Rice’s rating. 

In his lawsuit, Reifschneider also alleges he told Barton he would be reporting multiple problems in the parks department, including sexual harassment complaints. Barton said she would look into it instead and reported that "nothing was going on" a month later. Reifschneider heard from park rangers that the situation had actually gotten worse.

Lawsuit settlement for St. Louis commander

Also earlier this week, 5 On Your Side brought you a story based on sourced information about a $162,000 settlement reached in a discrimination lawsuit filed by St. Louis Police Lt. Col. Lawrence O’Toole.

The city released a copy of the agreement Thursday -- the full 72 hours it had to withhold the information according to the Sunshine law.

You can read it here.  

Read more Byers' Beat here.

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