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Appeals court weighs who has the right to set police standards

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger
File photo | Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Court of appeals is considering the constitutionality of a law on police standards championed by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

A St. Louis County law that would have set minimum operating standards for police departments in the county is in the hands of a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals.

The law, approved in December 2015, set staffing, training and hiring standards. Departments would have been required to have at least two officers on duty 24-7 and conduct background checks on prospective officers that included psychological screenings. Elected officials in cities that failed to comply could be jailed, or the St. Louis County police could take over public safety services in the city.

County Executive Steve Stenger, a champion of the measure, claimed the County Council had the authority to set those operating standards under a section of law that gives counties the right to "make and promulgate orders, ordinances, rules or regulations, respectively as will tend to enhance the public health."

In a short opinion issued in May, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen made it very clear that he found nothing in Missouri law, the state Constitution, or the county charter backing up Stenger's claims. Appeals court judges Lisa Van Amburg, Angela Quigless and Robert Dowd are now considering whether he was correct.

St. Louis County

County counselor Peter Krane cited a connecting thread of provisions in Missouri state law, the Constitution and the County charter in defending the county's actions.

Basically, it boiled down to this: the County charter, which derives its power from the Missouri Constitution, gives the County Council legislative power to "such other subjects as may be authorized by the constitution or by law." State law gives county legislative bodies the right to pass regulations that "tend to enhance the public health." Experts who testified at the County Council, Krane said, clearly made the connection between things like use-of-force and pursuit policies — both of which are required under the standards — and improved public health.

Judge Dowd was fairly skeptical.

"I'm all about standards for policing," he said referencing problems with small departments that were widely revealed after Michael Brown's death in 2014. "But I have some trouble with whether public health and public safety are the same thing."

Judge Van Amberg, however, seemed to contemplate that the aftermath of Brown's death revealed the potential public health problems with small, under-trained police departments.

The cities

Bob Jones, an attorney for the 16 cities who sued, made a very simple argument — state law trumps.

State law, he says, gives cities that want to have it the singular authority to establish police departments. State law already sets some minimum standards for departments in cities of 400 people or more. And state law clearly lays out the licensing and training of police officers.

"None of these laws authorize county oversight," Jones said. "This is not a unique county concern and therefore has to be in harmony with state law."

A ruling in the case is expected in a few months.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.