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Commentary: Police super districts signaled end of real 'local control'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2008 - Early in the film Patton, the title character arrives in North Africa to take command of the beleaguered II Corps, an American Army unit that has faired poorly in its initial encounters with the Germans. Arriving early and unexpected, the general finds an outfit in disciplinary freefall.

With the imperious George C. Scott superbly portraying the imperious George S. Patton, the new commander discovers junior officers in bed long after reveille, enlisted personnel out of uniform and absent from their posts and a mess hall operating as if it were a restaurant at a resort hotel.

As Patton's tight-lip fury becomes increasingly evident, his new subalterns stumble over each other desperately trying to feign competence. The more urgently they scramble, the more obvious their deficiencies.

Finally, the general turns a corner only to find a sleeping GI slumped against a wall on the floor before him. Patton wakes the soldier and asks him what he's doing. The startled young man struggles to attention and explains that he was just trying to catch a little shut-eye. Patton instructs him to carry on, commenting that he was the only son-of-a-bitch in the place who knew what he was doing.

That memorable scene came to mind when contemplating the current plight of the St. Louis Police Department.

Local readers are all too familiar with the litany of misfeasance and misadventure that have recently plagued the once-proud organization: misused World Series tickets, missing money from the Property Custody Section, an ongoing federal investigation into a towing scandal that is expected to yield multiple indictments, a continuing state audit that has already revealed misappropriated asset forfeiture funds, over-price badges, off-duty shootouts in Illinois and the list goes on.

Earlier this month, two detectives from the Crime Suppression Unit were indicted for stealing money and planting evidence on suspects. Two days prior, an officer escaped from Internal Affairs investigators and killed himself in full uniform during the course of a kiddy porn investigation. Though human fallibility is inevitable in any organization, you really can't blame the average citizen for wondering what the hell is going on here.

Regrettably, there is no facile answer to that reasonable inquiry. Critics have seized upon the above to argue for local control. They contend that the antiquated system of having the governor appoint a police board to oversee the department is the root of the problem. In doing so, they conveniently overlook the fact that this arrangement has been in place since the Civil War; and during most of that time, St. Louis was considered to have one of the most progressive and scandal-free police forces in the United States.

A more promising explanation can be found by looking at the structure of the organization itself. When I entered the Police Academy in early 1974, the city was divided into nine districts, each of which was housed in its own neighborhood station. Each district had a distinct identity and was commanded by a captain.

Lines of command and control were clearly drawn. They began with the patrol officer who was responsible for his beat. He -- and yes, patrol was an overwhelmingly male occupation at the time -- answered to his sergeant who was responsible for the precinct. The sergeant, in turn, reported to a lieutenant -- the watch commander -- who was in charge of the platoon. Finally, the lieutenant answered directly to the district captain who was not quite a feudal prince, but was the closest approximation of one you were likely to find in 20th century America.

Platoons rotated between the day, afternoon and night shifts on a 3-week basis and each was expected to handle any incident that occurred on its watch. And God forbid that an out-of-district car had to be dispatched into your district because that would indicate that your captain couldn't manage his own turf.

This pattern of strict accountability started to fray when officers began to be paid for overtime. Suddenly, they were ordered to turn any job they could not complete on their shift over to the next one whenever possible. This practice curtailed overtime pay, but also left the on-coming watch short of manpower.

Because half of the afternoon watch might be out of service handling the work of the day watch, the remaining officers were more often dispatched off their beats to handle new calls as they came in. That all but ended the concept of individual responsibility for a given beat. How could you blame a cop for what happened on his beat when he never had a chance to go there in the first place?

This problem was exacerbated when fiscal concerns prompted a general down-sizing. When I came on, there were 2,232 commissioned officers in the city. Today, you'd be lucky to scrape up 1,250 -- and calls for service continue to increase. Ironically, the command rank has actually grown during the course of this drastic reduction. We're suffering from a surfeit of chiefs and a dearth of indians.

But the coup de gras for unit cohesion was delivered when the neighborhood stations were closed in favor of "super stations" that house three districts each. Now, cops have to abandon not only their beat, but their entire district, simply to run in a suspect or sign a report. With nobody quite sure who's doing what, the situation is reminiscent of the II Corps headquarters prior to the arrival of Patton.

I don't know the new police chief, Daniel Isom, personally but what I hear of him is uniformly positive. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish him a Happy New Year, because I'm sure he's going to have a busy one.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.

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