The streets of the city of Wellston are now being patrolled by a new police department.
The Wellston City Council voted 5-2 Monday night to disband its police department and contract for services with Vinita Park, a tiny municipality a few miles to the west.
"The decision to disband our police department was a very difficult one for me," said Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin. "There were several factors that were considered and they all led to the same conclusion. This is also difficult because there are some good people who have worked in our department, several I consider friends."
The contract should result in significant savings for Wellston, though Griffin did not know the exact amount. A copy of the contract was not made immediately available for review; it was negotiated in part by Ferguson city council member Wesley Bell, who is also a municipal judge in Velda City and the municipal prosecutor in Riverview.
"I did try to work on not giving up my police department, but it's a great day," Griffin said. "My best interest is to do the best thing for the city of Wellston. So this decision is the best decision to me for the city of Wellston, not only for the employees, the citizens, but the business owners."
Tim Swope, the chief in Vinita Park, said he was humbled that Wellston had chosen his department for policing services. He said both Griffin and Vinita Park Mayor James McGee were deeply involved in contract negotiations, which had been going on for months.
"At times it was frustrating, because they were so extensive in making sure this was going to work," Swope said. "We can't fail. There's a lot of people around who might want that to happen. We're not going to fail."
Vinita Park will also begin a contract with its neighbor, Vinita Terrace, on July 1. It's undergoing a name change as well, to the North County Police Cooperative.
"This is not going to be Vinita Park coming in and taking over. It can't happen that way," Swope said. "This is all of us joining together and having some skin in the game." He said he's also willing to listen to any other department who might be willing to sign a contract with the cooperative.
In a report on the region's fragmented policing released last month, the Police Executive Research Forum suggested that Wellston join a cluster with eight other small departments, who would then contract with either St. Louis County police or the University City police department.
PERF conducted the research on behalf of the group Better Together, whose executive director, Dave Leipholz, called the North County Cooperative a good first step. But the details of the arrangement would determine whether it would be successful. That’s especially the case, Leipholz said, because soon-to-be-signed legislation overhauling municipal courts requires county police departments to be accredited within six years. Vinita Park’s department is not currently accredited.
“I think that one of the key things that remains to be seen is will they go through the process and become accredited and do the things necessary to address the issues that PERF’s report identified as common across several department,” said Leipholtz, whose group is collecting data on regional governance that could help shape a merger between the city and the county. "But hopefully, one of the things that PERF’s report discusses is how consolidation can possibly lead to good things if they can transform and go through that accreditation process and come out the other side with a stronger department."
Swope, the police cooperative's chief, said he is seeking accreditation from the Missouri Police Chiefs Association."
Swope said it will take about three to four weeks to transition decals and uniforms to the new North County Police Cooperative name. Dispatching transferred within minutes of the contract being accepted on Monday, he said.
The new cooperative is going through Wellston's old equipment to see what can be transferred over, which could result in cost savings, Swope said. And an auditor from another police agency is reviewing the city's evidence locker.
"We're hoping that everything is place, where it needs to be," Swope said. "I'm not aware of any cases that are in jeopardy of being dropped." He said officers who are not hired on in the new co-op can still be subpoenaed to testify on old cases.
A spokesman with St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said the office was unaware of the transition until Tuesday morning.
Jason Rosenbaum contributed reporting for this story
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