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Stenger wants municipal police departments to shape up — or ship out

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's proposal would impliment minimum standards for police departments to follow. If they don't meet those benchmarks, Stenger's office could effectively disband departments.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's proposal would produce minimum standards for police departments to follow. If they don't meet those benchmarks, Stenger's office could effectively disband departments.

Update with response from Municipal League - The umbrella organization for the cities, towns and villages in St. Louis County are turning thumbs down on a proposal by the county executive that could lead to loss of control over their police departments. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger wants municipal police departments to hit certain training, hiring and operational benchmarks. And if they don’t meet them, his administration could effectively force cities to contract with other agencies.

That’s the crux of an ambitious proposal that could greatly expand the county executive’s power into municipal law enforcement agencies – a sphere of influence that St. Louis County government has generally left alone. 

Saying that the county’s 57 police departments produce “a disparate patchwork of policies and protocols,” Stenger is urging the St. Louis County Council to pass legislation that requires agencies to meet uniform benchmarks. It comes after the county’s municipal police departments came under deep scrutiny after shooting death of Michael Brown.

“My goal is to ensure that all county residents have equal access to consistent, high-quality law enforcement regardless of where they live or where they travel,” Stenger said.

The Municipal League, meanwhile, is asking the council to ignore the proposal, saying it should have been consulted. Dialogue, the league says, would be a better way to go. Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider said the cities are sovereign entities not subject to the county.

Some of the requirementslaid out in a fact sheet provided byStenger's office include:

  • Requiring checks on all new hires, which would include drug screenings, criminal background checks, character assessments and psychological examinations.
  • Compliance with state mandated continuing education requirements. It would also require officers to graduate from a Peace Officer Standards and Training-approved center.
  • Notifying the Missouri Department of Public Safety whenever a police officer has been hired or fired.
  • Providing 24-hour service with at least one officer and supervisor on duty.
  • Establishing public policies on use of force, vehicle pursuits, lawsuits, complaints and firearms discharges. Also establishing policies prohibiting contact or detention based on “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability or economic level.”
  • Complying with state laws on reporting racial profiling information with the attorney general’s office.
St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar joined Stenger on Wednesday in announcing the minimum standards proposal.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar joined Stenger on Wednesday in announcing the minimum standards proposal.

“I think this has been a long time coming,” said St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. “These are fundamental standards. These are common man standards. If you ask somebody what would you expect from your police department as far as hiring or how they run a police department, these are just common standards that we’re looking at here today.”

If a city’s police department doesn’t comply with these standards, Stenger says that agency wouldn’t be allowed to operate in St. Louis County. They could either contract with a municipal police department that meets the standards or with the St. Louis County Police Department.

“We are willing to help departments meet those standards,” Stenger said. “If they don’t have a use of force policy, our department will sit down with them. And once again, this is not a cost-intensive exercise. We will sit down with them, and we will help them craft that policy. So it is a situation where we are quite literally willing to assist them and help them meet the standards.

“But if they don’t, if certain departments don’t meet those standards, they should not be policing in St. Louis County, because St. Louis County citizens deserve to have equal access to quality law enforcement,” he added.

Under the bill, Stenger said the county would effectively have to approve a city providing police protection for other cities. For instance: Normandy provides policing for a number of small north St. Louis County towns. And Vinita Park recently began patrolling Vinita Terrace and Wellston.

“Basically, this law puts everyone on notice that if you’re going to contract in St. Louis County, that it has to be approved by St. Louis County,” Stenger said. “That’s the county executive’s office and that’s the county council.”

Midas touch?

Stenger’s proposal, which is expected to be presented at next week's County Council meeting, showcases a major philosophical shift in how the county deals with local police departments. 

Missouri Department of Public Safety Dan Isom
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom praised Stenger's proposal.

For the most part, the county doesn’t insert itself within the affairs of cities except for very specific situations – such as the countywide smoking ban. When asked what right the county executive’s office had to regulate local police departments, Stenger replied: “It’s not so much a matter of right. It’s a matter of our charter and state law.”

“The charter of St. Louis County says that we can legislate countywide into the municipalities when it relates to public health,” Stenger said. “And there is perhaps no other issue that relates more directly to public health than law enforcement.”

The proposal received a warm reception from members of the Ferguson Commission, including former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom. He said the legislation “champions some of the main focuses” of the Ferguson Commission report.

“The increased training standards required are key,” Isom said. “Think about it. It’s not reasonable to pull a person off the street with no prior policing experience and think that he or she would be able to effectively serve their community.”

While Stenger possesses a relatively strong majority on the County Council to pass his proposal, one of his fiercest critics was highly skeptical.

Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, first got wind of Stenger’s proposal from this reporter. Erby’s district includes small, predominantly African-American municipalities that could be affected by this proposal. And she said Stenger is not “demonstrating at all that he’s willing to work with people – you know, to sit down and talk with them to work things out.”

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, wants to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, says she's skeptical about Stenger's proposal, including the possibility that St. Louis County Police Department could patrol more cities.

“I don’t believe that one person should have control, especially when I see the way that this administration is going,” she said. "As far as I can see, St. Louis County hasn’t done anything to address their training or their police department."

One of the other potential issues is that the bill only requires a police department to draft policies and turn in traffic stop data in regards to racial profiling. But it doesn’t actually say that a department will face any punishment if it consistently shows troubling patterns. (For example: Attorney General Chris Koster’s office expressed deep concern about how Ladue’s police department pulls over a high percentage of minority motorists.)

For his part, Belmar said it’s the attorney general’s job to define “whether those discrepancies exist or not,” adding that “I don’t think there’s anything in the county executive’s bill necessarily that would subvert statute.” And Stenger added the standards “aren’t going to address every issue related to policing in St. Louis County.”

“This is local legislation that seeks to have minimum standards,” Stenger said. “So we’re not going to address every issue relating to policing in this legislation. But we believe and I believe that every St. Louis Countian deserves to know that they’re going to be treated equally with respect to law enforcement all across the county.”

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