Updated at 2 p.m. with comments from Chuck Wexler, local leaders. — A report from a national research group says St. Louis’ fragmented policing is hurting the region in many ways.
“Our study revealed a complex policing and justice environment that cannot be 'fixed' by any one measure, such as consolidating all of the police agencies in the city and county,” the report from the Police Executive Research Forum read. “Fragmentation of policing is inefficient, undermines police operations, and makes it difficult to form effective law enforcement partnerships to combat crime locally and regionally.”
The research forum, based in Washington, D.C., began studying the region’s law enforcement structure in September on behalf of Better Together, a project with ties to billionaire libertarian Rex Sinquefield that is studying municipal fragmentation. The report released Monday found policing problems that are not unique to St. Louis, such as pervasive inequality in the way that police officers treat communities of color. But PERF found that St. Louis’ fragmented law enforcement structure presented barriers to something as basic as fighting crime.
For example, the report closely echoed the U.S. Department of Justice review of the Ferguson police department and courts, finding that many municipalities used their police departments simply to generate revenue. Those inappropriate policing goals, the report said, came at the expense of the trust of the community.
"The focus of many police departments on revenue at the expense of community policing is eroding the public’s trust and undermining residents’ cooperation in investigations and crime prevention efforts. Public safety and well as officer safety suffer as a result," the report concluded. "Furthermore, in a region with so many small communities, the erosion of trust in any one police department can undermine overall trust in 'the police.'"
Even more problematic, the report suggested that a focus on low-level crimes that lead to revenue for the city’s coffers comes at the expense of fighting more serious crimes such as murder and assault. Nationally, the arrest rate for less serious offenses is not even twice the arrest rate for more serious crimes. But in some North County departments, officers are making arrests for lower-level crimes at a rate 10 times more than those arrests for violent crime, even though many of the cities have a violent crime rate at or near that of the city of St. Louis.
"That's the irony," said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of PERF. "Here are these communities that are high crime, who should be focusing on strategies to reduce crime, and they wind up targeting people for all these traffic violations. They're not doing what they should be doing. They're not focusing on crime. That was part of the insanity."
PERF also found that the fragmentation of departments leads to lower police quality overall, via the "muni shuffle." That’s the name given to the common practice of an officer leaving one department because of discipline concerns that are never officially recorded and being hired immediately by another department. The practice saves money because smaller departments don’t have to train a new officer, PERF said, but it also means that unqualified or troubled officers can end up in the departments that have the highest crime rates.
PERF’s recommendations fell into four broad categories:
- Strategic consolidation of departments and services
The report did not call for the elimination of all 60 individual police departments -- Wexler said that would be ideal, but wanted to be pragmatic. Instead, researched focused on 18 small departments in mid and North County with high crime rates and inefficient departments, as measured by the number of officers per resident, and the number of officers per square mile.
Those departments -- Beverly Hills, Hillsdale, Northwoods, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Velda City, Velda Village Hills, Wellston, Berkeley, Calverton Park, Ferguson, Kinloch, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Country Club Hills, Flordell Hills, Moline Acres and Riverview -- would be grouped into three clusters that would then contract with St. Louis County or neighboring departments that are better run.
"Look, if each one of these entities is dealing with high crime by themselves, they’re going to lose," Wexler said. "They come together with some kind of leadership, there’s a higher percentage chance that things will change."
PERF also recommended reducing the number of dispatch centers and officially cross-deputizing St. Louis Metropolitan and St. Louis County officers, which would allow them to make arrests for local ordinances in each other’s jurisdictions. The report also called for increased sharing of crime data across jurisdictions. “Crime does not stop at a municipal or county border, and the impact of crime permeates the entire St. Louis city and county region. Policing must be viewed as a regional issue,” the report said.
- Uniformity in training
PERF called for the city and county to re-unite their training facilities. The report also recommended regional standards for training, use of force and hiring, and a regional code of officer conduct.
- Transparency of data
PERF’s report noted the difficulty in acquiring the information needed to do its research, such as the number of sworn officers employed by departments and their average salaries. It called for a central database of information, including department budgets, command structure, use-of-force incidents and crime statistics. The forum also recommended the creation of a “police satisfaction survey,” which would serve as a tool to open the lines of communication between departments and residents.
- Increased oversight
PERF called for Missouri’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to be appropriately funded. It also pointed out the need for stepped-up enforcement of the so-called Macks Creek law, which limits the amount of revenue cities can collect from traffic fines.
The report also recommended the development of a state or regional mechanism to ensure that departments are meeting the new regional standards.
"Out of the terrible situation that exists in many parts of the St. Louis region, an opportunity exists to create a new, more integrated, regional approach to policing that is modeled on best policies, best practices, and best training and development of officers," the report concluded. "Police agencies in St. Louis city and county should aim higher than merely responding to the current crisis. They should aim for developing an unprecedented new state-of-the-art approach to regional policing, in which all agencies work together and work with their communities to address the crime problems and quality of life issues that really matter to the people who live in St. Louis city and St. Louis County."
Many of the police chiefs whose departments are named in the forum's report declined to comment to St. Louis Public Radio. Dennis Ogelsby, the chief of the newest department, Flordell Hills, said his residents are happy with the level of service they are receiving from his officers and that he opposed consolidation. Northwoods police chief Earl Heitzenroeder said he believed his city as a whole was "very well run," and that he was especially cautious of any report coming from Better Together.
Steve Abels, the acting head of the St. Louis County Municipal League, said residents often prefer smaller departments. He said pending legislation in Jefferson City that would further reduce the percentage of court fines and fees cities can use in their budget may spark additional discussion about contracting, but any conversations needed to be driven by people who live in the cities.
That was a sentiment echoed by Chris Krehmeyer, the president and CEO of Beyond Housing, and the leader of the 24:1 initiative, which looks to boost cooperation among the cities that make up the Normandy school district. Nine of the 18 departments targeted for consolidation by the PERF report are in the district.
"If consolidating makes sense, and if their constituents believe that that's the best thing, then I think that's something they should look to," Krehmeyer said. "If they think it's not, I think they have the right to say, as of this moment, we don't think that's best for our community."
Krehmeyer said reports like the one from PERF ignore the work that 24:1 is already doing to boost collaboration. For example, he said, the chiefs meet on a regular basis and are exploring the creation of a major case squad that would investigate serious crimes. Many of the departments rely on St. Louis County for homicide cases.
"The general sentiment is that oh, no, no one is doing that, and they’re going to have to be forced to change, which we don’t think is fair, nor do we think that that’s the reality of the situation on the ground," Krehmeyer said.
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