Fitch Says Successor As Chief Should Be Mindful Of Politics
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch may need to make a little room on his wall.
That’s because Fitch has received two resolutions from the St. Louis County Council celebrating his service – under very different circumstances. The one he received Tuesday commemorates his retirement, which takes effect Friday. (Fitch is starting a consulting company to advise law enforcement groups and companies.)
The other resolution, issued late last year, came in the midst of the controversy over vacancies on the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. Fitch had called for an FBI investigation into the awarding of a subcontract for St. Louis County’s crime lab. The council used the resolution to short circuit any attempt to oust him from his job.
The veteran police officer, though, takes it all in stride.
“I don’t need a pat on the back,” said Fitch on Wednesday. “Really, the charge I get out my job every day is coming to work every day and knowing that there are things we can do for the community to take care of the good people around us.
“I don’t need resolutions to say ‘we think you did a good job,” he added.
Fitch’s successor will be picked on Friday, likely from three lieutenant colonels who interviewed for the job. It will mark an end of the era for Fitch, who has served as the department's chief since 2009.
While he says he will miss his colleagues and “putting the uniform on every day,” Fitch added that he won’t miss the “political stuff.” And it was hard for Fitch to avoid that “stuff” in the past few months, especially as controversy swirled over the crime lab subcontract and the seemingly endless battle to fill the police board. Fitch even accused unnamed “political researchers” of digging up dirt about him and his department.
Fitch – who has continually sworn off any interest in running for political office – said if the county police chief “could just do crime fighting and law enforcement issues in a police department, it really would be the best job in the world.” But unfortunately, he said, “all the political stuff gets dragged in and the chief has to deal with it.”
He predicted that things could get even more heated as Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, duke it out in the months leading to the Democratic primary in August.
“You have to be conscious of what’s going on around you, as far as the politics go,” Fitch said. “But the chief’s place is not to get involved in the politics. It’s to try to stay away the best that you can to deal with issues on a law enforcement basis – not a political basis. If you always answer questions, if you always handle your job on a law enforcement basis – you’ll stay out of the political arena.”
(When inquired if he had any parting words for Fitch, Dooley said on Tuesday: “I wish him well.”)
It could be argued that the police chief can't escape politics because the county executive appoints police commissioners. But Fitch isn’t necessarilyfor changing how commissioners are appointed, adding that the “police department should never be in a role or a capacity where they’re in charge of everything.”
“I don’t think we want that kind of police department,” Fitch said. “The public should always have a role in that. And certainly, the public gets to vote on who the county executive is. So if the public’s not happy with how the police department is being operated by the Board of Police Commissioners, they get to decide that at the voting booth.”
Fitch’s successor will come to the position with county crime at a low point. While that achievement is a good thing, Fitch said his successor must be vigilant.
“Crime is generally speaking under control,” Fitch said. “My point is by saying crime is an issue they’ll have to deal with, it cannot continue to go down. Crime eventually will return to historic numbers. That’s something the new chief is going to have to deal with.”
Fitch also said a future chief will confront a burgeoning heroin epidemic and municipalities that “can no longer probably afford to have a competent police department.”
In recent months, Dellwood and Uplands Park went through intense debates about whether to keep their police forces or contract with St. Louis County. Fitch said other municipalities will run into those problems in the future.
“That’s absolutely going to continue,” Fitch said. “Many of these cities have already burned through their reserve funds. So they’ve done basically everything they can do within their own power to stay afloat. And they’re going to have to make some decisions on whether or not they remain as a city or at the very least they’re going to have to look at other sources of police protection.”
Fitch said some of those municipalities may turn to bigger cities for assistance. Asked if the county police department may become overtaxed if more cities ask for service, Fitch said it “depends” on if the county council provides his agency with enough resources.
“They will not be able to say ‘guess what? You are now going to take over this additional territory, have more responsibility – and, by the way, we’re going to give you no additional resources to do that,’” Fitch said. “That just won’t work.”
Dooley said on Tuesday that if more cities need to contract with St. Louis County Police, it’d “be an opportunity for us to work together in the community.”
“We contract with 16 or 17 municipalities right now. So it’s not unheard of. It’s nothing new. It is business,” Dooley said. “If a municipality wants to work with St. Louis County and contract with us, we welcome that opportunity.”
Eye on racial profiling
For her part, Council Chairwoman Hazel Erby wants the new chief to focus on keeping “the community safe” and the “crime rate down.”
But she also said she is “very concerned about racial profiling and I have not been quiet about that.”
“When we’ve interviewed the others – or as far as we got in the interviews – with the other police commissioners, I stressed that we needed to address the racial profiling issue,” said Erby, the council’s only African-American member. “So that’s a very big part of my expectation is that they’ll deal with that.”
Erby said she wants the new chief to be “open minded” and to listen to residents and "organizations who are bringing that to the forefront.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that St. Louis NAACP chapter filed a civil rights complaint against the police department, charges that Fitch strongly disputed.
“People should be able to drive through their communities without being stopped for insignificant things,” Erby said. “There’s enough out there in terms of addressing crime – and people who really need to be stopped -- instead of harassing our citizens.”
But Fitch said a lot of people believe that racial profiling will continue even with extensive training and education. “All we can do is address it when we see it … And offer our officers more training than ever,” Fitch said. “As long as we reflect the community that we serve, I think the community expects that. But they also don’t expect us to be perfect.”