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Stenger, Municipal League in talks to ease concerns about his police proposal

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

It’s now up to the St. Louis County Council to decide whether to approve or reject County Executive Steve Stenger’s plan to set minimum standards for the county’s 57 local police departments.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, county Municipal League Executive Director Pat Kelly sought to soften the initial criticisms that some of his organization’s members have leveled since Stenger rolled out his proposal last week. Their concerns center on fears that some local police departments may have to disband.

“To move to this next step and look internally at our police departments is only a good thing for the communities and a good thing for the public,” Kelly said. “So we are behind doing that. Our police chiefs are behind doing that. But we need to do it working together.”

Kelly’s comments came hours after he and Stenger had been in a private meeting to discuss the particulars of the proposal that has set off some of the smaller municipalities that might be affected should their police departments not meet the proposed county standards.

Kelly said in an interview that one of the issues had been Stenger’s timing, which he said had caught the league and its members off guard. That’s particularly true of the smaller communities with small police departments most likely to be affected, he said.

Stenger sought to assure the seven council members that his reasons would help all the communities and all county residents. “My goal is to ensure that all county residents receive consistent high-quality law enforcement and equal access to that,” he said as he formally introduced his bill. “Regardless of where they live, or travel.”

Under Stenger’s proposal, local police departments would need to meet certain training, hiring and operational standards. Those requirements would be in addition to the state mandates under a new statute – commonly known as Senate Bill 5 – that has just gone into effect.

Stenger emphasized to reporters after the council meeting that he wasn’t targeting any particular police departments. “Our county government is not in the business of ‘calling people out,’" he said. “It’s not about ‘calling out’ departments. It’s about minimum standards.”

Council hears cautious support

Kelly was among only a handful of people who spoke at the council meeting, and all were cautiously supportive, although some question the county executive’s authority to impose countywide standards on local police.

Stenger, a lawyer, said he’d been assured by County Counselor Peter Krane that he had the power. “We have a strong legal basis,’’ Stenger said. He cited the county charter giving the county government the power to protect public health.

“There’s a direct nexus between health and policing,’’ Stenger said.

Among Tuesday’s speakers was the Rev. Phillip Duvall, who owns a house in Ferguson.

Duvall said that he’s aware some North County mayors are suspicious of Stenger’s proposal. But Duvall contended that some of the criticisms came from municipal officials who had been sharply critical of the quality of Ferguson’s police department in the wake of the police shooting in August 2014 that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, setting off racial unrest locally and nationally.

Those officials shouldn’t be attacking the quality of Ferguson’s police force and then be unwilling to impose the same standards on their own, Duvall said.

“We need to hold police officers accountable everywhere,’’ Duvall added.

Stenger’s plan “begins a well-needed discussion,’’ the pastor said. We need to start somewhere.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.