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Assistant St. Louis police chief says he was passed over for chief because he's white

Lawrence O'Toole has filed a lawsuit against the police department and City of St. Louis
Credit: SLMPD

ST. LOUIS — The assistant police chief for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Louis. 

Lawrence O’Toole filed a lawsuit against the city that alleges he was passed over for a promotion to police chief because he is white and that the current chief has retaliated against him for complaining about it.

O’Toole served as interim chief during most of 2017, and was criticized for his handling of the protests that followed the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley.

Four white police officers have been convicted of beating a black undercover police officer who was posing as a protester that night.

PREVIOUS STORY: Former St. Louis officer admits to beating undercover colleague during Stockley protests

O’Toole said police “owned tonight” at a news conference that night. He later asked federal authorities to review police conduct during the protests.

Also during his tenure as interim police chief O’Toole characterized the shooting of a black off-duty police officer as a “caught in the crossfire” situation, even though it involved a white police officer shooting him in the elbow – a career ending injury.

In his lawsuit, O’Toole alleged Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told him, “If Jason Stockley didn’t happen you would be the police chief,” which O’Toole believes shows his race was “clearly a motivating factor” in Edwards’ decision not to promote him to chief.

He also accused Chief John Hayden of retaliating against him. Edwards picked Hayden to become chief. Hayden is black.

O’Toole also alleged Hayden retaliated against him and “immediately changed the duties and responsibilities held by the plaintiff,” according to the lawsuit that was filed.

“The decision to change the duties and responsibilities was an effort to marginalize an attempt to force the resignation of the plaintiff,” according to the lawsuit.

He also alleged that he was not given a $6,000 pay increase from Prop P, even though all of the other commanders did.

Police spokesperson Officer Michelle Woodling said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

O’Toole’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, declined to comment.

A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Stockley, who is white, was charged with the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, following a pursuit in 2011. O’Toole said “We owned the night,” during a press conference in August 2017 during which the department used a controversial technique known as “kettling” to surround dozens of people – including a Post-Dispatch reporter – and arrest them after multiple orders to disperse. Numerous civil lawsuits have been filed, including one by the undercover black officer who has yet to return to work because of his injuries.

“This public unrest created a motivation on the part of the defendants to refuse to promote the plaintiff and such animus arose from the plaintiff’s race,” according to the lawsuit filed May 1.

He also criticized the committees city leaders formed to narrow the list of police chief candidates as “pretextual and heavily biased against the plaintiff on the basis of race.”

“The selection committees contained members who were openly hostile to the plaintiff on the basis of his race,” the lawsuit states. “The defendants conducted public meetings as part of the promotion/hiring process. These meetings were conducted in a way designed to humiliate and embarrass the plaintiff on the basis of his race.

“The defendants failed to control the meetings and their participants so that the meetings were chaotic and plaintiff was denied the opportunity to participate in a fair and meaningful way.

O’Toole, a 36-year veteran of the department, filed a dual complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2018 – a precursor to filing a discrimination lawsuit.

Previous discrimination lawsuits involving police officers have cost the city millions – including two filed by white officers.

Sgt. David Bonenberger sued the department in 2012 alleging that he was passed over for a promotion to the police academy during Chief Dan Isom’s tenure in favor of a less qualified black woman. In 2013, a federal jury awarded Bonenberger $200,000 in actual damages and $420,000 in punitive damages.

Bonenberger sued the department again in 2016 claiming that two days after he was awarded attorney’s fees, then Chief Sam Dotson closed the internal affairs investigation into the discrimination. He settled for $725,000 in that case in December 2016.

In June 2017, the city paid Maj. Mike Caruso $300,000 after he claimed he was passed over for a promotion to lieutenant colonel in favor of Ronnie Robinson, a less-qualified African-American major, based on race. Lt. Col. Rochelle Jones also sued the department for Robinson’s promotion, claiming she was passed over for the job because of her gender, but that case is being appealed.

In June 2019, Capt. Ryan Cousins won about $1.1 million after accusing then Chief Sam Dotson of penalizing him more harshly than his white counterparts after an internal affairs investigation concluded that he ordered an officer to alter a police report and release a felon in possession of a firearm after he had been arrested. The city’s Civil Service Commission concluded that Cousins ordered the officer to change the report, but that the move only warranted discipline, not termination.

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