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St. Louis County Police issued thousands of ‘wanteds’ since 2017

The St. Louis County Police’s current third precinct will be vacated for a new construction on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in unincorporated south St. Louis County.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Police Department has faced lawsuits over its policy of issuing "wanteds" instead of getting an arrest warrant approved by a judge.

The St. Louis County Police Department has issued more than 10,000 "wanteds" since 2017.

The department changed its policy in 2018 to no longer list people as wanted with misdemeanors and only issue wanteds for people with felonies, and numbers have fluctuated since.

Wanteds are an electronic notice that St. Louis County police officers can enter into a database system called REJIS, which other officers can then use to arrest and bring individuals into custody for interrogation.

According to the county police department, records show 944 wanteds issued for felonies and 41 issued for misdemeanors through November 30 this year. In 2017, before the policy change, the department issued 1,577 wanteds for felonies and 575 for misdemeanors. While wanteds for felonies haven't changed much in the last seven years, it's a different story for misdemeanors.

Police data shows misdemeanor wanteds saw a steep fall of more than 80% after the policy change in 2018, and numbers have stayed at those lower levels since. County police explained that their current breakdown of wanted numbers still shows misdemeanors even after the policy change in 2018, because they belong to individuals who also have felony charges.

The wanted policy at the St. Louis County police department allows police to carry out an arrest without judge input or, in many cases, without evidence of any crime. The policy has led to years of lawsuits, including one by Tim Reinhart, who is suing the Chesterfield Police Department after he says he was falsely accused of theft and arrested on a wanted last year.

The Department of Justice in 2015 found use of the wanted program by the Ferguson Police Department to be rife with the potential for abuse. And a federal appeals court last year criticized the wanteds program as used by county police as “fraught with risk of violating the Constitution,” but ultimately the courts deemed the program legal.

Maureen Hanlon, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, was involved in litigation challenging use of the program for six years and said it’s not fair to suspects.

“St. Louis County puts essentially someone’s name into a computer system, and then wholly unrelated municipalities are arresting individuals with really no information or belief or basis to justify the arrest at all,” Hanlon said during a recent appearance on St. Louis on the Air.

“There’s nothing an individual can do to find out if a wanted has been issued against them. There’s no public way to learn that information short of being arrested,” she added.

Reinhart’s attorney Jack Waldron compared a wanted to an arrest warrant, except the judge doesn't approve it. It’s a glaring problem, he said.

St. Louis County Police spokesman John Conrardy said the department follows a process for issuing wanteds that is beyond an officer making a standalone decision. He made it clear that he can only speak for the county police department, not other municipalities.

“An officer is not just going to go, ‘Oh I think this person committed a crime, I’m going to issue a wanted.’ We put forth lots of effort to make sure we’re finding the right person,” Conrardy said.

He said officers take every measure to try to talk to the person suspected of the crime before issuing the wanted. The prosecutor’s office requires police in all municipalities to conduct an interview and get the full side of a story from the suspect before the case is presented to them, Conrardy said; then a wanted is issued.

Conrardy said the county department’s wanted list is evaluated every three months.

“It’s a living breathing document, and we make sure everything is up to date and fresh,” Conrardy said.

The wanted system has existed for decades in the St. Louis region, but it is rare in other parts of the country. In addition to the DOJ, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has criticized the practice.

Between 2011 and 2015, St. Louis County police filed over 15,000 wanteds. The overall number of times county police have listed someone as wanted has decreased by 30% since last year.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.