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Commentary: Police and local control: two views, one place

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2010 - It is hardly newsworthy when I disagree with a Post-Dispatch editorial. This happens virtually every time the paper goes to press.

The editorial board routinely weighs in on the best ways to wage war, preserve the peace, stimulate the economy, reform health care, protect the environment, conduct scientific research, educate the young and enforce the law. Apparently, the only human enterprise its members have yet to master is how to maintain a large profit by publishing a daily newspaper.

Though I'm frequently at odds with the editors, I defend their right to opine freely. They have their opinions and I have mine -- dogs and cats just don't see eye to eye. It is thus unremarkable that we disagree, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that they at least agree with themselves.

When the issue of local control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department resurfaced recently, the Post immediately offered an enthusiastic endorsement. The present system of state control was portrayed as an antiquated historical curiosity that prevents city residents from enjoying the full blessings of modernity.

The people and their elected representatives, we were told, are powerless to influence the administration of a department run by an insulated police board appointed by a remote and presumably indifferent governor. And city officials, the paper contended, have no say so over the biggest item in their annual budget. The solution to this vexing conundrum, of course, was local control.

I dissented on a couple of points, not the least of which was the definition of "local." By law, police commissioners must be city residents. These people don't descend upon us from Mars -- they live here. It would seem to me that vesting authority in four residents of the city and its mayor would answer the description of "local control." The complaint seems to be that the gubernatorial appointees aren't beholding to the city's political machine.

As an ex-officio member of the police board, the mayor is hardly an isolated bystander in police affairs. He could change the official language of the police department to Swedish tomorrow if he wanted to -- so long as he could convince two of his fellow commissioners that the transition was a good idea.

The mayor also sits on the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which must approve the police budget before a dime can be spent. He thus has final authority over money matters -- if he can convince either the city comptroller or the president of the Board of Aldermen to see things his way.

This awkward, out-dated system is what the Civics instructors of my youth used to refer to as "checks and balances." The Post, of course, saw things differently and advocated on behalf to giving the Office of the Mayor unfettered control of the police force. Once again, we can agree to disagree: differences of opinion, as they say, are the reason people bet on horse races...

I had intended to cede the pundits at the Post their point of view and drop the issue until St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch proposed consolidating several mid-county municipal police departments into a new county police precinct. The chief is concerned about the uneven police service rendered by a hodge-podge of tiny departments representing villages and hamlets that are little more than glorified neighborhoods.

To professionalize operations, the chief would have entire police departments -- rather than individual officers -- licensed by the state Police Officer Standard & Training (POST) commission. Departments that failed to satisfy state standards would be decertified and put out of business by POST.

Personally, I think the chief's idea is a good one. Incredibly, so does the editorial board at the Post. In a March 7 editorial, the editors conclude that the consolidation is "... a job for state lawmakers, who still have half the legislative session remaining. It's a law-and-order issue that should have the support of Democrats and Republicans alike."

Let me get this straight: the Post wants the legislature to free the city police from the control of a state board whose members are appointed by the governor, then merge an assortment of locally controlled departments and place them under the supervision of a different state board whose members are also appointed by the governor. Do these people read their own newspaper?

Say what you will about the inefficiencies and inadequacies of this patchwork of miniature police departments, but it represents local control of law enforcement at its finest. Every few blocks, a motorist encounters a different municipality with different priorities, policies and procedures. Each speed trap has its own municipal court to collect fines and its own set of political insiders. You can't get much more local than that.

Isn't this exactly why city cops overwhelmingly oppose local control? Don't they argue that the city will become Balkanized into its component 28 wards, each with an alderman and its own committeeman & woman to exert influence over the local application of the law?

When a former city police commissioner came under scrutiny recently for interceding on behalf of a relative suspected of drunken driving, the governor promised a prompt and expeditious inquiry. The commissioner resigned within a week. Would you expect the same result with 28 aldermen, 56 committee people and a host of citywide elected and appointed officials to accommodate? As I've said before, these are basically decent people but that's a lot of relatives...

It may not be news when I differ with the editorial board at the Post, but it is somewhat remarkable that it now can't seem to agree with itself.

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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