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Amid lawsuit threats, St. Louis County Council passes police standards bill

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee speaks against proposed standards for polcie departments in St. Louis County in December 2015.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Vinita Park Mayor James McGhee stands with a slew of municipal officials after the passage of a police standards bill. County cities have threatened a lawsuit over the measure.

The St. Louis County Council passed by a 4-2 margin legislation setting up operational, hiring and training standards for municipal police departments.The county executive’s office could effectively dissolve departments that don’t meet the benchmarks and force them to contract with another law enforcement agency. (Both the county executive’s office and county council would also have the right to review policing contracting arrangements between cities.)

“It’s not something new. I think it’s a situation that existed for decades,” Stenger said. “And it’s time that it be fixed. And certainly, these standards do challenge the status quo. But that’s what change is all about. And this is a change that I think our community desperately needs.”

Some of the requirements laid out in a fact sheet provided by Stenger's office earlier this year include:

  • Requiring checks on all new hires, which would include drug screenings, criminal background checks, character assessments and psychological examinations.
  • 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.

Councilmen Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights; Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur; Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, and Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, voted for the measure, while Councilmen Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and Hazel Erby, D-University City, voted against it.
“This is not a takeover, in my opinion, of any municipality,” said Dolan. “As a matter of fact, it will help a lot of municipalities. And those municipalities that have issues with the standards can seek help.”

Municipal backlash

Yet as has been the case in prior weeks, the municipal standards bill was the subject of immense criticism from municipal officials during the council’s public forum. When the bill passed, Vinita Park Mayor James McGhee started singing “We Shall Overcome” while leading a stream of municipal officials out of the county council chambers. 

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit File photo by Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has faced a backlash from municipal officials over his police standards bill.

Many mayors and police chiefs who spoke before the council contend the county doesn’t have the power to regulate municipal police departments. And while she emphasized she supported professional standards for law enforcement agencies, Erby said the bill “usurps the authority of local government” and that “placing control of public safety in one person is wrong.” (That was a reference to how Stenger’s office could determine the fate of municipal police departments.)

Pagedale Alderman Faye Millett contended that county officials were taking an arrogant approach in dealing with municipal governments.

“And what you’re saying is that you’re better than us. And that you can make it better for us by becoming our supervisors, our bosses, our slave masters,” Millett said. “I refuse to play a part in that program.”

Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider went so far to compare the standards to the battle between American colonists and King George III back in the 1700s. And he echoed other officials in predicting that the law won’t withstand a likely court challenge.

“The bill before you is an intolerable act, just as onerous to your municipalities and constituents as the tyranny of Great Britain was to our founding fathers,” Schneider said. “And if you pass this, there will be a legal war that you cannot win.” 

Stenger has long contended that the county’s charter amendment regulating health provides the authority to follow through with the police standards. And he noted earlier this fall that a judge upheld a charter amendment in St. Charles County that banned red light cameras – which he contends bodes well for the standards being held up in court.

“It does challenge the status quo – and I think that there are some departments that are fearful that they’re not going to meet the minimum standards,” said Stenger, adding that other municipal police departments easily meet the standards. “I don’t know where the fear comes from with respect to those municipalities. But many of them will meet these standards. And in fact, I’d say the vast majority of our law enforcement departments would meet these standards.

“And for those who don’t, we are very happy to help them come up to those standards,” he added. “And that has been made clear.”

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