Some Bel-Ridge Trustees Say Village Police Problems Have Been Ignored
A 2012 audit of the police department in Bel-Ridge is getting new attention from some members of the community's Board of Trustees.
Longtime resident and trustee Rachel White has been pushing for change since she found the audit this year in a stack of papers. It showed mismanagement and possible misconduct of officers. But the entity with the power to address it — the Village Board of Trustees — had failed to make major changes.
“We were led into a burning building,” said board member Mary Mans. Mans joined the board just months after the audit was performed. Like White, she says she was never told of its existence.
The document identified 13 areas of concern. Among them, suspiciously high charges for gasoline, which suggested officers were buying gas for personal use on village accounts; a key to the department’s evidence room was unsecured; and the chief himself had been suspended from the regional background check database, REJIS.
But after these issues were brought to the board’s attention in a closed session, the nine trustees couldn’t get the votes they needed to make departmental changes. A month later, the village elected four new trustees to the board, and the audit was filed away.
Small Municipality, Small Department
With about 2,700 residents in an area less than a square mile, Bel-Ridge is one of the smallest municipalities in St. Louis County. Tucked in near the airport, it has rows of well-kept brick homes, an elementary school and a mom-and-pop barbeque joint.
The village is served by the Bel-Ridge Police Department, which has about 20 full and part-time officers. Local business owners say they appreciate that police check in to ensure their doors are locked each night, and leave slips of paper to show they visited. Bel-Ridge’s circumstance is not uncommon. Of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, two-thirds operate their own police departments.
Police in Bel-Ridge are given a great deal of autonomy over their department; oversight is placed in the hands of the Board of Trustees, a group of nine residents elected to two-year terms. The department itself is managed by the chief of police, Gordon Brock, who has held the position since 2000.
Operating the police department ties up more than half of the village budget each year. In 2013, the department cost Bel-Ridge $1,140,444.
As with many of its municipal neighbors, Bel-Ridge turns to traffic tickets as a significant source of income. The 2014 budget estimates the village will bring in $450,000 in court fines this year, just a touch under 30 percent of all village revenues for the year. In October, Arch City Defenders filed a class action lawsuit against the municipality, alleging it had no authority to collect the fines.
Police in Bel-Ridge are also grappling with a disproportionately high crime rate. There have been three rapes, 25 aggravated assaults and 96 property crimes in the municipality so far this year, according to Uniform Crime Statistics compiled by the FBI.
In a December 2011 meeting, Village Board of Trustees Chairman William Walker pointed out that Bel-Ridge was paying for unusually high amounts of gas to patrol an area less than one square mile. So, in January of 2012, the Board of Trustees at the time hired a private consultant to perform an investigative audit of their police department.
“We have receipts validating the frivolous spending of the village residents’ hard-earned tax dollars,” Walker told the board. “Some of the bigger cities around us don’t spend that much for gas.”
Four months later, Walker would lose re-election to the board.
Areas of Concern
The Board of Trustees selected Robert Lowery, a retired police chief and the former mayor of Florissant, to perform the audit as a private consultant. Over a period of three months, Lowery conducted a series of interviews with officers and staff, looked over the annual budget and reviewed departmental procedures.
“It was a totally mismanaged police department,” Lowery said, in a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio. He said officers below the chief were given large amounts of clerical work, which would keep them inside instead of patrolling the streets.
“It’s only a 16 to 18-man police department. You’d end up on a day shift with 5 or 6 people in the office,” he said.
The audit identified 13 areas of concern. Some that stood out include:
- A key to the evidence room was unsecured, and hung on the chief’s office wall. The room itself had not been purged for 15 years, even though it is common practice to do so annually.
- Eleven credit cards owned by the city were kept in an open safe, which Lowery cautioned could lead to misuse by staff or members of the police department.
- A suspect had accused a Bel-Ridge sergeant of selling narcotics, but three members of the Board of Trustees advised him against taking a polygraph exam. The allegations were investigated internally and then dismissed.
- While off-duty, officers, including the chief, were permitted to work for nearby bars. Even though police often moonlight as security guards, Lowery cautioned that one particular establishment where they worked was concerning. The report stated it ‘has been talked about in law enforcement circles for years regarding the sale and distribution of narcotics on their premises.’
- Although roughly 83 percent of Bel-Ridge residents are black or African-American, the police force is almost entirely white.
- The chief of police, Gordon Brock, had been suspended from using the regional crime reporting system — REJIS — for deleting the record of a narcotics arrest of another police chief’s grandson in 2008.
For years, Brock would have to ask other officers to run background checks for him. Lowery was appalled the Board of Trustees had allowed him to keep his job.
“You have to maintain the integrity of a police department and police officers,” Lowery said. “If you’re going to do these things, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing left at all. It’s totally wrong.”
A spokesperson for REJIS said its Law Enforcement Policy Advisory Committee has since reinstated Brock’s access to the system, and the criminal investigation is no longer active.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Brock claimed the audit was a “head hunt.” He said he has since tightened up gas usage, and credit cards now have to be signed out from the front office. He said his department has plenty of oversight, through Uniform Crime Reporting and Police Officer Standards and Training Certification requirements.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re watched by the state all the time,” Brock said. “The state’s tightened a lot of things where our hands are tied. You don’t have the leeway you used to have back in the ’70s and ’80s and stuff like that.”
But the state failed to notice many of the problems identified in the audit.
The document may have been forgotten had not been for Rachel White. In September of 2014, White was going through old files in the Village Hall when she pulled it out of a stack of papers.
“It was alarming, there were things there that were going on in the village that I thought needed our attention,” White said.
She immediately noticed the date: March 24, 2012. White was elected to the board 10 days after the audit was performed, but retaining members failed to mention its existence. She said that, unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised.
“In my opinion, it’s a good old-boy network,” White said. “A lot of things have been covered up. A lot of things have been pushed aside.”
The current board chairman, Pat Snider, said she had seen “parts” of the audit but declined to be interviewed.
Why Small Departments Struggle
In fact, small municipal departments have few levels of oversight, unless they seek it out.
Individual police officers are certified by the Missouri Department of Public Safety, and county prosecutors or highway patrol officers may be called in for some investigations. Otherwise, municipal police departments usually answer to the elected leaders of the city they serve.
That means some internal investigations that should be brought to a higher authority slip under the radar, said Tim Maher, a criminology professor for the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“When you have a police board members serving who are friends of the councilmen, does it make it easier to create internal conflict of interest when allegations of misconduct take place? Absolutely. But it doesn’t have to,” Maher said.
Maher stressed that just because a department is small, doesn’t mean it will be corrupt. But smaller departments can make it harder for whistle blowers to come forward without fear of retribution.
Maher said small departments often operate on tighter budgets and can’t afford to pay officers as much as larger agencies in wealthier municipalities. Full-time patrolmen in Bel-Ridge make approximately $16.47 an hour, according to the village’s 2014 budget.
“There are so many agencies in a small geographic area, it’s difficult to keep an eye on them all,” Maher said. “These problems seem to keep appearing on a more regular basis in recent years. I think something needs to be done.”
Bel-Ridge Board of Trustees Rachel White and Mary Mans said they plan to push the board to take the matter up again, but it will only work if they’re able to get a majority of the trustees behind them.
Note: An earlier version of this story said Chief Brock had held his position since the early '90s. He has worked as a Bel-Ridge officer since 1990, and was promoted to chief in 2000.