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Three cities challenge St. Louis County's new police standards

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 to apply standards to municipal police departments is the subject of a lawsuit that was filed on Thursday.

After St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger proposed imposing certain standards on municipal police department, the leaders of the county’s towns and cities loudly threatened to go to court.

Three cities made good on that warning on Thursday.

Breckenridge Hills, Olivette and Rock Hill filed a lawsuit in St. Louis County court challenging the county’s new training, hiring and operational standards for police agencies. The St. Louis County Council approved the measure on Thursday by a 4-2 margin.

While Stenger says that the standards will provide better police protection for county residents, municipal officials say the county doesn’t have the authority to tell local law enforcement agencies how to operate. That’s the main point of the lawsuit, which states “the constitution and laws of the State of Missouri, and the St. Louis County Charter, do not permit, directly or by implication, St. Louis County or its executive to exert any supervisory or operational authority whatsoever over the cities’ police departments.

“By attempting to exert control over the cities of St. Louis County (through the new law), St. Louis County has acted in excess of the powers granted to it by law and has violated the Missouri Constitution,” the lawsuit states. “The plaintiffs accordingly ask the court to declare [the new law] invalid, enjoin its enforcement, and award the plaintiffs their fees and costs in this matter.”

Paul Martin is the city attorney for all three towns filing suit. He emphasized that all three law enforcement agencies that patrol these cities would probably meet the standards in question – but added the new law sets a bad precedent.

“The cities are upset about the county’s assertion of this authority that we believe they don’t have the authority to assert,” Martin said. “And if it starts with this one police standards bill or whatever you want to characterize it, then it is the first step in God knows what might follow. And that is why my cities and other cities are so opposed to this thing.”

Martin said it wouldn’t surprise him if other cities filed lawsuits against the new law – or tried to join his legal action.

For his part, Stenger has long asserted that a county charter provision regulating health allows his office to regulate municipal police departments. Under the new law, his office could disband police departments that don’t meet certain thresholds – and he could along with the county council disapprove of contracting arrangements between cities.

In a statement, Stenger said that “the standards provide all St. Louis County residents with equal access to consistent, high-quality law enforcement no matter where they live or travel.”

“The status quo is not acceptable and we have the legal right to ensure the health and safety of county residents under the county charter and state law,” Stenger said.

But Martin doesn’t find Stenger’s arguments about the county charter giving him authority to regulate police departments terribly convincing. “We’ve asked them to articulate their reasoning for that conclusion and they haven’t given us anything at all,” he said.

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