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Commentary: St. Louis confidential: Follow the money, not the car

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 6, 2008 - Unless you spent the last month patrolling the Bering Sea with the Russian submarine service, you've no doubt heard about the towing company scandal involving the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Though there's probably fire beneath all the smoke, this case doesn't quite measure up when compared to classic and current reports of big-city police corruption elsewhere.

  • In the Ramparts Division scandal, LA cops were accused of bank robbery, cocaine theft, brutality and planting evidence on criminal suspects.
  • Seven members of the Chicago PD's elite SOS Unit are currently under federal indictment for falsifying charges, stealing drug money and conspiracy to commit murder.
  • FBI agents in Boston were discovered to be working for fugitive crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger.
  • The Knapp Commission investigation of the NYPD made whistle-blower Frank Serpico a household name.

The best St. Louis could muster is a scandal revolving around an emotionally troubled 35-year-old woman and a series of used cars, the most famous of which was a borrowed Dodge Neon, which she wrecked. Admittedly, the woman in question is the estranged daughter of the chief of police and the cars she was driving had been originally towed by city cops, so there's probably more to this picture than meets the eye.
The chief stepped down over the matter, the U.S. attorney's office is investigating and criminal charges of some sort could yet be forthcoming. But as of this writing, the only thing lacking in our police scandal of the century is an allegation that anybody broke the law.

The police chief takes a fall over a Dodge Neon? A subcompact? No wonder we suffer from a municipal inferiority complex ...

Though the media breathlessly pursued the latest "Tow-Gate" developments, a different police scandal was recently resolved by the Missouri Supreme Court with scant notice by the press. The court's decision received one-day coverage in Metro Section of the Post-Dispatch and cursory mention on the evening news. The case involved the attempted robbery of some 1,800 retired city cops by the Honorable Board of Police Commissioners.

Missouri law mandates that the city police department "shall provide" health insurance for retired officers. To the lay intellect, that language would seem fairly unambiguous: retired cops get health insurance.

In fact, the bill's author, then-State Sen. James Murphy, confirms the legislative intent. Murphy, who's now the city sheriff (and the boss at my day job), advises that he wanted make sure the people who put themselves in harm's way to protect the citizenry throughout their careers would have health insurance when they retired. City cops can retire after 20 years of service with 40 percent of their salary. The longer they stay, the higher the percentage of compensation they earn until that benefit maxes out at 75 percent after their thirtieth anniversary.

In 2001, the Police Board announced a new health coverage policy for retired cops. Based on the recommendation of an outside consultant, the department would no longer furnish health insurance to cops who retired with less than 30 years service. The board had, in effect, modified state law without bothering to notify the legislature.

The St. Louis Police Officers' Association filed suit in circuit court on behalf of its suddenly disenfranchised members. The following year, Judge Timothy Wilson found the board to be in violation of the law and ordered coverage re-instated and injured members compensated for their losses.

When notified of the verdict, the consultants advised that if they'd known dropping coverage was illegal, they would not have recommended it. The Police Board paid $150,000 for that sage advice.

By 2006, the board was back with a new strategy to balance the budget on the backs of the men and women who'd entrusted them with their retirement. This time, there was no artificial distinction among retirees based on length of service -- everybody got screwed.

The board imposed a new insurance plan upon its hapless members that drastically reduced coverage while drastically increasing co-pays and deductibles. The association again sued, retaining the services of Elkin Kistner, who was instrumental in winning the initial verdict.

Seven insurance industry experts testified at trial; five for the board, two for the association. The one thing all of these expert witnesses agreed on was that none had ever seen a plan as deficient as the one the board had come up with for its retired members.

After a local judge ruled in the board's favor, the association appealed and posted a $169,600 bond. That appeal ultimately resulted in a 6-1 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that the board had grossly violated the statutory rights of its retired members.

Once again, the board has squandered untold sums of public treasure on legal fees and penalties in the attempt to defend the indefensible. Indeed, Mr. Kistner can probably fund his own retirement with the money he's earned compelling the Police Board to obey the law.

In his ruling in the original law suit, Judge Wilson metaphorically explained that the board did not have to furnish its members with the Cadillac of plans, but must provide them a serviceable Chevrolet. I'd guess the commissioners are now out shopping for a good, used Dodge Neon.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St Louis cop who currently works for the Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.