Kirkwood signs agreement to help racial division -

Kirkwood signs agreement to help racial division

KIRKWOOD, Mo. (AP) -- City officials and Kirkwood residents on Thursday night signed on to an agreement intended to improve community relations and begin healing racial division in the city two years after a shooting rampage at City Hall.

The agreement, mediated by the U.S. Justice Department, seeks to make the city more responsive to resident concerns and help bridge divisions between the largely black Meacham Park neighborhood and the rest of largely white Kirkwood.

"This is a work in progress," Councilman Iggy Yuan said at Thursday's council meeting. "We're dedicated to continuing this effort."

But not everyone's convinced the document is a good start. Harriet Patton was part of the community team involved in the mediation before leaving the team because she felt the city was refusing to admit a racial problem existed in Kirkwood.

Patton said she was not convinced the agreement would help. "You can never solve a problem if you don't acknowledge a problem," she said.

The path to the agreement began two years ago when Kirkwood resident Charles "Cookie" Thornton stormed City Hall during a council meeting. He killed police Officers Tom Ballman and William Biggs and city officials Connie Karr, Kenneth Yost and Michael Lynch. A sixth victim, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was critically wounded and later died. Thornton, a contractor from the Meacham Park neighborhood who had long-standing complaints with city officials, was killed by police.

Some said the rampage, by a black man against white members of the police force and city government, highlighted fractures between the Meacham Park area and the rest of Kirkwood, problems stemming as far back as the annexation of Meacham Park, part of a plan to put in a shopping center at Lindbergh Boulevard and Interstate 44.

Some residents there said they weren't treated fairly in the deals that made that development possible, or that Meacham Park hasn't fully shared in the benefits that Kirkwood has reaped from the businesses. Residents have complained about unresponsive city officials and harassment by police.

After the shootings at City Hall, the Justice Department offered to help the city and residents with a mediation process to address some of the concerns and problems.

Among other provisions, the agreement:

-- Asks the City Council to give its Human Rights Advisory and Awareness Commission more power to respond to citizen complaints. The city also will be asked to buy an automated tracking system to log citizen concerns.

-- Calls on the city to build on its relationship with the community with new programs. These include efforts to recruit minorities into the police explorer program and work with community groups to find jobs and paid internships for high school students.

City officials and members of the community team said the agreement may not be perfect but is a needed step. They also emphasized that while it requires the city to take action, it also will need residents to do their part to improve Kirkwood.

"It's time to stop finger pointing" said Ron Hodges, a member of the community team. "It's time to step up to the plate."

But some residents think the city has still failed to do that by not fully admitting a problem exists, a problem they say was partly to blame for Thornton's rampage. They don't defend his actions but fear the racial tension they think played a role isn't being taken seriously enough.

"It was an American tragedy, and everyone regrets it," said Ben Martin, a Kirkwood resident with concerns about the final agreement. "But experiencing a tragedy like that and not learning from it, that doubles the tragedy."


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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