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Who's In Charge Here? For Ferguson And St. Louis County Police, Not Elected Officials

Bill Greenblatt, UPI

Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer brought about an intense examination of the conduct, racial composition and “militarization” of local police departments.

But one topic that hasn’t been talked about that much is how elected representatives exert fairly little direct control over the region’s law enforcement agencies.

Thanks to the way most cities like Ferguson are structured, the chief executives and city councils of most St. Louis-area cities can’t directly make changes to police departments. That’s the responsibility of either a city manager or, in the case the St. Louis County Police Department, a commission appointed by a county executive.

This arrangement came about as a way of keeping politics out of the administration of government. And as a result, many local governments here were organized to make elected representatives of local cities and towns fairly weak – and give unelected administrators more power.

The aftermath of Brown’s shooting death isn’t likely to change this arrangement overnight. But it’s likely that it will bring about more discussion about who oversees police departments – as well as how powerful local elected officials should be.

“It raises the broader question of leadership,” said John Ammann, a St. Louis University law professor who is leading an effort to provide amnesty to people who run afoul of Ferguson’s municipal ordinances. “And institutional restrictions that… restrict leadership are a problem. What happened in this case? The governor stepped in, called out the National Guard, and called in the Highway Patrol. I mean, you have to be able to respond to things with leadership.”

St. Louis Public Radio made numerous attempts to talk with Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and Ferguson city manager John Shaw. We also left questions for spokesman that was hired to answer questions for the city. Those queries were not answered as of the filing of this story. So in order to understand things more clearly, we’ve combed through Ferguson’s charter and ordinances to get a better sense of who’s in charge:

What entity directly oversees the Ferguson Police Department?

Ferguson’s city manager. In fact, Ferguson’s charter specifically states this unelected official is “the chief executive and administrative officer of the city and shall be responsible to the council for the proper administration of the affairs of the city.”  

Credit (Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio)
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson's department is overseen by Ferguson's city manager.

The city manager is also responsible for appointing Ferguson’s police chief “on the basis of his administrative abilities and his qualifications as a law enforcement officer.” He also oversees the rest of Ferguson’s departments, including the agencies that run the city’s parks and fire department.

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones said this is a pretty common arrangement for cities in St. Louis County. He traced it back to the Progressive Era, a time when political activists wanted to wrestle power away from mayors and city councils.

He said the “underlying premise” of the move was allowing the “pros” to make administrative decisions – not the elected officials.

“It’s separating politics from administration,” Jones said.

What power does the mayor of Ferguson have over the police department?

In a formal sense, none whatsoever.

Along with other members of the council, the mayor has a vote to hire or fire a city manager. But Ferguson’s charter states the mayor and council must deal with “city officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the” city manager “solely through the manager.” It goes onto say that “neither the council nor its members shall give orders, directions, or instructions to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately.”

“It’s not simply practice,” Jones said. “Their charter makes a violation for them to do anything other than that. Now, they could meet with the city manager and say ‘you know, we think you should consider making a change in that position.’ But they cannot order the city manager to do that.”

What Jones is talking about is specifically contained within Ferguson’s charter. It prohibits the council or the mayor from “dictating the appointment or removal of any city administrative officer or employee,” but does allow members to “express its views and fully and freely” with the manager “anything pertaining to appointment and removal of such officer or employee.”

That provides some credence to the idea that while the mayor or council doesn’t have direct control of departments, they can still have some influence through the city manager on how they operate. Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes put it this way on Twitter: “A real boss at the muni level can RUN it.”

So, what power does the mayor of Ferguson have over anything?

Knowles, Ferguson's mayor, faced intense scrutiny after Brown was shot and killed, with the most common refrain being why he didn’t do more to stop the situation from spiraling out of control. 

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III is one of the few north St. Louis County elected officials who is active in Republican politics. Before Michael Brown's shooting death, he pitched the idea of making county offices in a merged St. Louis and St. Louis Count
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
While Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III represents his city at events and in the media, he has fairly little administrative power over Ferguson's city government.

But the long and short of it is that Knowles has very little formal power. He is, in effect, an at-large councilman who is in charge of presiding over the city council’s meetings. He often represents the city at formal events, such as a recent groundbreaking of a bus station. And the city’s ordinances allow him to appoint certain committees. That’s about it.

Like most mayors of St. Louis County towns, Knowles is a part-time elected official. He gets paid about $350 a month and has another source of employment. Jones said the low pay and relatively high time commitment has an impact on who runs for these types of positions.

“It obviously means that you have to have discretionary time, which typically means you have to be in some economic circumstances that allow you to have discretionary time,” Jones said. “I cannot think of any Midwestern or Western example of a city that has pay levels or compensation levels for their city council that would allow the individual to be a full-time member.”

Still, not everybody is convinced that mayors are completely powerless when a city manager is in charge. St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby said some cities "hide behind that city manager type of government," because "they get involved in everything else."

"I definitely think that we should be more involved," said Erby, D-University City. "Because when things go wrong, we are held responsible for it. So therefore, we should have more input, more say-so about what goes on. And I know that in Ferguson, the mayor says that he has no control over the police department or the city council has no control. But I don't agree with that."

Are there any St. Louis area cities where this isn’t the case?

Jones could think of only three cities – St. Louis, St. Charles and Florissant – that get paid a big enough salary to be considered “full-time” mayors. These officials tend to have a lot more power than, say, the mayor of Ferguson.

For instance, Mayor Francis Slay’s office appoints the Department of Public Safety director, who in turn oversees the city’s police department. Slay is also responsible for appointing people that run St. Louis’ various departments, and can veto bills – two things the mayor of Ferguson can’t do.

How about the St. Louis County Police Department? Who controls that agency?

The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners is tasked with overseeing the St. Louis County Police Department, which is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar was hired by the county's Board of Police Commissioners. The county executive doesn't have a direct role in supervising Belmar, though he is not completely powerless over the police department's operations.

The board consists of five members appointed by the St. Louis County executive. It can’t have more than three members of a particular political party, and members cannot hold any other elected office.

St. Louis County’s charter states that the police board has fairly specific duties in overseeing operation of the department.  That includes hiring St. Louis County’s police chief, which occurred earlier this year when commissioners tapped Jon Belmar to lead the department.

Does the St. Louis County executive have any power over the police department?

Directly, no. But he has a bit more power than the mayor of Ferguson.

The St. Louis County executive is tasked with preparing the county’s budget – which includes funds for the police department. Here’s recent example of this power: There’s a bill that went through the council this week that allocated $2 million in overtime payments to county police. The county executive needs to sign off on that before its divvied out. (St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, by the way, emphasized that particular overtime allocation is unrelated to the Ferguson unrest.)

And the county executive can also make an impact through his appointments to the police board. Back in 2009, then-Chief Jerry Lee was effectively forced out when Dooley rearranged the composition of the board.

There's also an ordinance that gives the county executive power to declare a state of emergency andexercise "the power to enforce all rules and regulations relating to emergency management." That can only be done in the "event of actual enemy attack upon the United States or of the occurrence of disaster from fire, flood, earthquake, or other natural causes involving imminent peril to lives and property in St. Louis County." It could be argued that the events in Ferguson fit this description.

Is there any chance the unrest in Ferguson may prompt the county executive to have more power over the police?

It’s possible, but not likely. Giving the county executive any sort of direct control over the police department is likely to engender a lot of opposition. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Last year, the St. Louis County Council balked at several of St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley's nominees to the Board of Police Commissioners. They feared Dooley was trying to engineer an ouster of then St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch.

St. Louis County Police Association President Gabe Crocker told St. Louis Public Radio that the department’s rank-and-file members like the current setup, because it “creates a degree of separation between the executive branch of government and the police department in St. Louis County.”

“When you put good people with good resumes on that police board, it is reflective of the community and you’re putting people on there that are rational and are not operating on a political platform,” Crocker said. “Why? It prevents political influence over the board. Certainly, we understand that there’s always going to be a degree of politics involved in politics. But I think the way St. Louis County does it is safe.”

Jones said the city of St. Louis is currently experimenting with the idea of having an elected mayor have direct control over a police department. But whether the last couple of weeks in Ferguson should prompt more direct involvement from leaders of other cities or St. Louis County, he said, remains to be seen.

“Such a discussion should only occur once the passions of the moment have not gone away, but been toned down,” Jones said. “Obviously, this decision was not originally reached in the abstract or suddenly. It’s been the practice now for the better part of a century nationwide. We’re the rule, not the exception. And so, abandoning it should be considered carefully.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.