Statement of Director of Operations Eddie Roth in response to St. Louis Post-Dispatch October 27, 2013 stories 'Jailed by Mistake.'
Ensuring the accuracy of suspect identifications when police make an arrest is a solemn obligation -- because so much is at stake. The weakness in the Post-Dispatch analysis, “Jailed by Mistake,” is its failure to adequately or fairly convey the exceedingly rare occurrence of identification errors that lead to confinement in the City of St. Louis. The story is positively grudging in its unwillingness to acknowledge the deep commitment and overwhelming success of law enforcement in preventing and correcting misidentifications, often in the face of great complexity and difficulty.
The Post-Dispatch’s own online news archives, which go back to 1988, undermine the report's claim of deep and longstanding dysfunction -- of a system that has not just been broken for years but also is callous about so serious a subject. The Post-Dispatch is, by far, the most deeply sourced news organization in this region, including in criminal justice matters and judicial affairs. It’s hard to imagine any great numbers of confinements of the type described in Sunday's story, or official indifference to them, evading detection for long.
The archive search engine is balky, but I could not find a local news story prior to 2012 which identified the kinds of misidentification errors and confinements which Sunday's story asserts have been going on for many years and may be of much greater dimension than the numbers revealed in Sunday's reporting.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri's director is quoted in the Sunday story. His organization also has a decades-long interest in the operations of St. Louis jails. In 2009, the local ACLU chapter excoriated the Division of Corrections in a lengthy investigative report based on claimed confidential informants who identified a catalogue of alleged “human rights abuses” besetting the city jails. The report was updated in 2012.
Neither the report nor update made any reference to misidentification arrests or misidentification confinements.
The absence of evidence of a systemic dysfunction is consistent with my experience. I aggressively sought out such evidence. I found the opposite.
Soon after my appointment, in February 2012, as St. Louis’ public safety director, I worked with Mary Fox, who runs St. Louis’ public defender office, on quickly correcting with the help of police, prosecutors and the courts, a misidentification confinement. I made plain to Ms. Fox, whom I respect greatly, that I am available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and will drop everything in response to any serious claim of a potential misidentification and will work on it continuously until it is resolved. The Circuit Attorney's Office and Police Department I found have the same urgent commitment -- something I observed in action, first hand, in real time.
Missouri public defenders are appointed to represent a significant percentage of people confined in city jails. No one is in a better position to bring identification errors to our attention than the defense bar. They understand the system. They have a confidential relationship with the inmates and a duty to their clients. They are experienced advocates. They have the resourcefulness to reach me and other responsible officials promptly.
I have complete confidence that any public defender who suspected someone may be languishing in our jail based on misidentification would move quickly to bring it to our attention. I recall having heard from Ms. Fox in just two cases over the past 18 months -- cases in which the confinements were just hours old.
There is more. Both the City Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution are situated in the heart of this community. We regularly receive phone calls from families of inmates, both in the Mayor’s Office and the Public Safety Director’s Office, on various issues affecting their loved ones. The director of public safety and I handle these calls and respond quickly to them -- typically with Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass following up directly with the family members. Mr. Pruitt of the St. Louis NAACP, quoted in the news story, has been a helpful facilitator in such communications.
Over the past 18 months. I recall receiving just one call from a family member concerning a potential misidentification.
The print version of Post-Dispatch report provides a dramatic table of, if I counted them correctly, 89 cases. It claims to represent “people who were mistakenly arrested in St. Louis in recent years.”
Most of the cases are not so recent. The oldest goes back to 2001. About half are five years old or older.
Some of the cases currently are the subject of litigation. We explained to the Post-Dispatch reporters that we are eager to tell our story, but that we believe the court, not the news media, is the most appropriate forum to make our case.
We look forward to our day in court.
Over the past five years, according to the data reported by the Post-Dispatch, the City averaged about one misidentification arrest a month -- with fewer than one a month in 2012, and about one every two months in 2013.
This out of an average of 2,500 and more arrests by St. Louis police each month, throughout the years.
One identification error is too many. We have made that emphatically clear in every communication we have had with the Post-Dispatch reporters.
The system is imperfect, it is a human system. It is not, nor should it be, immune from criticism. We understand and acknowledge and regret mistakes -- mistakes that, undetected, create hardship and, as so often is the case with unintentional human error, are especially painful and seem so readily preventable when presented in the light of selective facts and inferences aided by 20-20 hindsight.
We believe the identification system, while imperfect, is high performing and constantly improving. That’s not an accident. It is a product of diligent, dogged, conscientious career St. Louis law enforcement officials, sworn and civilian, men and women who are deeply committed to getting this right every day, and to creating and improving systems that help them get it right.
The facts, fairly presented, bear this out.
Anyone who believes someone is being wrongly confined by the City of St. Louis based on mistaken identification should contact me immediately -- in the Mayor’s Office at (314) 622-3201 or by twitter at @eddieroth or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director of Operations
Department of Public Safety
Law, Safety, and Justice