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From gold badges to free baseball tickets to unearned overtime, audit faults city police department

Thi article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 10, 2009 - A state audit of the St. Louis police department released Tuesday listed a litany of shortcomings, from expensive gold badges to missing money to 4,000 guns that should be destroyed instead of stored, but Auditor Susan Montee said many of the problems have been solved since the audit was conducted.

"We found problems," she told a news conference at the Wainwright State Office building downtown. "What we are trying to do is recommend what can be fixed so they don't occur in the future.

"There have been many, many things that have been changed since we began this process."

Asked whether she thought the police department was honest, she responded:

"There are certainly issues in this department that were not dealt with in an honest way. Does that mean the department is bad as a whole? No."

Many of the problems detailed by Montee in the 47-page audit report have been made public in the past and were tied to former Chief Joe Mokwa, who resigned last year in the wake of revelations about the department's relationship with a towing company. Much of the report was made up of the department's response to Montee's findings.

Without mentioning Mokwa by name, Montee noted that since he had been replaced by Chief Dan Isom, many procedures in the department that her audit found to be faulty have been updated and fixed. "If you had proper oversight and control," she added, "this system could certainly work."

Montee dodged questions about whether the problems found in the audit should push the state to cede control of the police department to St. Louis, or whether the procedures for selecting members of the Board of Police Commissioners should be changed. Such issues, she said, were beyond the scope of the review conducted by her office.

Isom, who took over as chief on Oct. 6, 2008, said that he has made more effective business practices one of his top priorities. Still, in an interview late Tuesday afternoon, Isom conceded that changing the public's perception of how the police department works will be a long process, and one that will work only if the public sees that things are being done differently.

"Ultimately," he said, " the proof will be deeds not words. I can sit here and say we're moving in a direction that's positive and that people can have confidence in. I truly believe that. If people take the time to look at not just the titles in the report but actually delve into what has been accomplished, I think they can make a fair assessment that we are in a different place."

And, he said, St. Louisans won't necessarily make a distinction between poor business practices and poor police work.

"It's all a package deal, unfortunately," he said. "We are the police department, whether it be patrolling the streets or administering our asset forfeiture account appropriately. We have to make sure both sides are appropriately managed. What we are trying to do is get ourselves back in balance, focusing on all aspects of the organization."

On the question of whether control of the police department should move from Jefferson City back to St. Louis, Isom said the issue is worth raising, but in the end he doesn't really care how that end of things is structured.

"I think it's up to the legislators and the people of Missouri and the city of St. Louis to determine the governance of the police department," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to continue to try to lead the police department in a positive direction. If you are engaged as a leader and focused on doing the right thing, that is what the police department needs."

Todd Epsten, president of the Police Board, said in a statement:

"There were failures on the part of the board and we apologize. I believe the single best decision this board has made is to select Chief Dan Isom. There is no one better to ensure that effective practices are in place, to ensure that internal audits are being conducted and to ensure that information is being communicated to the board.

"Chief Isom has been given a charge to turn the Metropolitan Police Department completely around and I am confident that we are well on our way to being a totally different department from the department we were on June 30, 2008."

The state audit, which took five months to complete, was ordered by then-Gov. Matt Blunt in September 2008. It covers the period from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008.

Among the main findings:

* More than $200,000 worth of computer equipment bought between 2005 and 2008 was found stored in its original shipping materials, unused. "They say they bought them because they were a good deal," Montee said, "but they're not a good deal if you're not going to use them."

* The Police Board approved $133,000 in severance for two department officials, including Mokwa, that was not reasonable or necessary, because the people involved were at-will employees not working under contract and could be let go at any time. Mokwa's severance package included $108,680 plus an agreement to pay his legal fees related to official duties performed while he was chief.

* The department's Property Custody Unit is holding 4,000 weapons that have no evidentiary value to the department, a finding that Montee said deserves further investigation. "If 4,000 guns are supposed to be destroyed, I doubt you want them to be sitting in an area that may or may not be secure," she said.

* Of the $6.9 million in overtime paid during fiscal year 2008, in 17 percent of the cases, officers were compensated for standby overtime while on duty, in violation of department policy. "Based on average hourly wages for the time period reviewed," the audit said, "it appears the department paid as much as $16,000 for unearned overtime."

* At the end of the audit review period, the department held more than $4 million seized under forfeiture laws that should have been disbursed on a more timely basis. Owners of $591,000 of that fund remained unidentified a year later, on June 30, 2009.

* Poor monitoring of a towing contract -- the issue that led to Mokwa's departure -- resulted in the contractor underpaying the city by $453,000 in fees over a two-year period. Also, the contract let the department use as many as five abandoned vehicles in the custody of the towing company, with no limitations.

* The department bought two hand-crafted gold badges for Mokwa that cost $6,000 each; he kept one of them when he left the department. Since the cost of the badges were made public, the police department has switched to gold-plated badges for high-ranking officers that cost $1,987 each; badges for other officers cost $20 each.

Asked about Mokwa's badges, Montee said: "He didn't do anything wrong by taking the badge. It's the policy that was in place."

* In 2008 and previous years, the police department accepted season tickets from the Cardinals, "which may be a violation of state law." Based on the value of tickets in a similar location, the audit said the tickets would be valued at $19,000. No tickets were accepted for the 2009 season.

* Department procedures allow employees who are leaving to accrue unused leave, as much as a full month, even if their last day on the job is the first day of that month. In a random review of 18 final paychecks, the audit found that in 12 cases, additional payments totaling $12,620 were made because of this practice.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.