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Commentary: Control of the police: What's broken?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - Idealists, civic reformers and other dangerously deluded souls often decry the influence of politics on law enforcement. They believe that rank has no privileges, that justice is blind and that cops should treat a 39th Street robbery suspect and the governor’s wife with the same professional courtesy. These people need to get out of the house more often.

The fatal flaw in their utopian vision is that it is impossible to realize as a matter of practicality. Trying to remove politics from law enforcement is like trying to take the brown stain from the water in a glass of tea.

The state laws and local ordinances the cops enforce are written by legislative bodies. These statutes define the scope of the cop’s authority and mandate the duties he performs. More tellingly, they provide the funding for the given police agency — including the cop’s salary, benefits and retirement plan. And the legislatures that both create the cop’s job and determine his level of compensation are comprised exclusively of politicians. Have you ever noticed how the boss seems to enjoy special perks around the office? Well, the same principle applies here. It’s a simple application of the Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rules.

Conceding that no one should be above the law and acknowledging the desirability of its impartial application, while at the same time recognizing the inherent influence politicians wield, about the best we can do is try to keep politics as far from law enforcement as possible. Oddly enough, there is currently a movement afoot in St. Louis to do just the opposite.

The police department in St. Louis is run by a civilian commission called the Board of Police Commissioners. Four members of the board are St. Louis residents appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, after which they are paid the handsome sum of $1,000 annually for their service.

Each of these members serves a four-year term and the terms are staggered so that one new member is appointed each year. This provision provides a certain continuity of management and a degree of political independence as a member appointed by a previous governor can rely on finishing his term regardless of his political affiliation with the new chief executive. The fifth member of the board is the mayor.

The police in Kansas City are overseen in similar fashion. These somewhat unusual arrangements date back to the Civil War — a fact that detractors cite to argue that they are antiquated curiosities sorely in need of replacement. Then again, the U.S. Constitution was written more than 70 years before the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South but I know of no widespread sentiment to replace that venerable document simply because it’s worked fairly well for a long period of time.

In fact, though advocates of local control seem to be gaining traction locally, no corresponding cry for change is forthcoming from Kansas City. Perhaps that’s because our cross-state neighbors have already tried the alternative and found it lacking.

In 1932, Kansas City officials successfully lobbied the legislature to return control of the police to city government. After seven years of blatant corruption under the Pendergast machine during which cops were fired for arresting criminals who were friends of “Boss Tom,” the department was returned to state control as a reform measure.

The two arguments I hear most often by local control advocates in St. Louis involve money and influence. The first contends that city officials have no say in the largest single item in their annual budget. The second asserts that as the elected representative of the people, the mayor is powerless to set the agenda for the police. Neither position holds up well under strict scrutiny.

Under terms of the Hancock amendment, the state cannot impose unfunded mandates on localities. Police budgets passed in Jefferson City are of the “may pay” — as opposed to the “shall pay” — variety and must be approved by the city Board of Estimate and Apportionment before they can be enacted.

The board of E & A is composed of the mayor, the city comptroller and the president of the Board of Aldermen. Only funding approved by these municipal officials ever becomes reality. The Police Board, for instance, has had statutory authority to pay dependent health insurance for decades but no police family has yet enjoyed that benefit because the city won’t fund it.

The influence of the office of the mayor on police affairs is admittedly limited but hardly inconsequential. Now in his third term, Mayor Slay is by far the longest-serving member of the Police Board and as seen above, he controls one-third of the critical vote on budget approval.

Despite impassioned pleas on behalf of the will of the people, nobody can cite a single example of a police initiative that was desired by a majority of the citizenry but thwarted by the Police Board. Far from being deaf to the voice of residents, street cops complain that the department is overly concerned with public relations.

The most vocal advocates for local control are the same people who want to establish a civilian review board for police conduct. There’s rich irony here because the Police Board is the original civilian review board.

Four residents of the city and its highest elected official enjoy the power to hire, fire, promote, demote and otherwise discipline officers while establishing policy and procedure for the largest police department in the state.

Command vested in the mayor and four of his constituents doesn’t equate to local control? The issue would seem to be more about the exercise of influence by the local politicians than civic accountability.

Recent police scandals in St. Louis have lent impetus to the movement for change. While these episodes were both serious and undeniably embarrassing, they’re certainly no worse than corresponding revelations from other large departments.

In the Ramparts Scandal, for instance, L.A. cops were convicted of unprovoked shootings, bank robbery and drug-trafficking. Putting City Hall in charge of the cops failed to prevent corruption in that case and others like it in Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

No system is perfect, and the present one is no exception. But by accident of history, we have inherited a system that provides a level of insulation between politics and policing. Before you scrap an arrangement that’s worked for nearly 150 years, you might want to take a close look at what you’re throwing away and an even closer one at the alternative.

As the song laments, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone?”

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.

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