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After historic vote, backers of local control prepare for hard part -- putting it into effect

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2012 - On election day, voters across the state voted to end 150 years of state oversight of St. Louis' police force. But, officially, the city must wait almost eight months before it finally gains control.

But to be ready for the July 1 hand-off, work is already underway. 

Proposition A requires St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the state to set up within 30 days a five-person transition team to oversee the process. (The mayor gets to appoint three members.) At least two members must come from a statewide police group. Of the members appointed by Slay, one must be the city police chief, and one must be a current or former member of the state-run Board of Police Commissioners that has run the department.

The new law also stipulates that the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approve an ordinance authorizing the takeover.

Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford said that meetings already are being held involving city department heads and counterparts within the St. Louis Police Department.

The mayor’s aim, said Rainford, to achieve a “smooth, clean, seamless transition that almost nobody notices.”

And that includes the current employees of the Police Department: 1,317 commissioned officers and 520 civilians. Rainford points to a provision of the new law stating that all commissioned and civilian employees on staff as of July 1 cannot be removed, except for cause.

“No civilian who has a job on the day of transition can lose their job,”  Rainford said, adding that the mayor and his administration will be emphasizing that fact in the coming weeks.

Aside from any dismissals for performance-related offenses, he added, “They can’t just be cut out of the budget.”

Rainford also emphasized that local control will not include the police retirement system and pensions, which remain under state oversight.

Such talk may be aimed at countering disparaging comments made before and after the election by Police Officers Association president David Bonenberger, who opposed Proposition A. The association ended up officially neutral, although some leaders supported the idea – particularly after a collective bargaining agreement was struck in 2011.

Association business manager Jeff Roorda, who won back his old state House seat on Nov. 6, praised the mayor’s office. “It’s been a collaborative effort up until now,’’ Roorda said. “The mayor’s office has signaled to us repeatedly they want us to be partners.”

Mayor's race could complicate transition

The transition comes amid two other ongoing events:

  • The selection of a new police chief to replace Chief Dan Isom, who plans to retire Jan. 1 to join the faculty of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
  • A city mayoral contest in March and April. Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed is challenging Slay in the March Democratic primary.

The chief will be chosen by the existing Police Board, which includes Slay. Under current law, the new chief must be chosen from among internal candidates. Once Proposition A goes into effect, the candidate pool for future chiefs can include outside candidates.
Rainford said the mayor “has said very clearly and publicly, he wants a chief who is committed to making all of our neighborhoods safer and making crime go down.”

Some law-enforcement authorities “want to wait until crime occurs, and then react and solve crimes,” Rainford continued.

“The mayor strongly believes in modern policing. So he’s looking for a chief who clearly will be able to work with him, under local control, but most importantly, a chief who gets that the (department’s) primary job is to make neighborhoods safer.”

On July 1, the chief will have a new title -- police commissioner -- and report to the city’s director of public safety, a post currently held by Eddie Roth, a former member of the Police Board. The Department of Public Safety already oversees the city’s fire department.

As for the mayoral contest, Rainford said that it shouldn’t affect the transition – or the Board of Aldermen’s consideration of the bill authorizing the transfer.

Rainford foresees swift aldermanic approval of the measure, unless “somebody in the Board of Aldermen decides to politicize it.”

“Hopefully we won’t see political games, but we’ll be ready for it,” Rainford added.

Board president Reed could not be reached for comment.

Proposition A's critics remain

Critics of Proposition A also aren’t going away.

At a Tuesday news conference, Citizens Against Prop A – a coalition of various opponents, including the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP – reaffirmed that their concerns remain.

Many of the coalition members have said they backed local control but not the wording or provisions in Proposition A, which they viewed as flawed.

Coalition leaders asserted once again that too many voters didn’t understand all the provisions of Proposition A. The strongest opposition – 44 percent – was registered within the city, they said.

Among other things, the coalition said that city officials should consider asking city voters to make some changes in the 1914 city charter, including a provision that they say allows the governor to get rid of the city police chief.

Spokesman John Chasnoff, program director with the ACLU, said critics also “will test the mayor’s assertions that Prop A does not inhibit the creation of an effective civilian review’’ to monitor police behavior. He warned of provisions in the new law that close some police records.

Jamala Rogers, the coalition’s coordinator,  is calling for the Board of Aldermen to review the enabling legislation closely and not be a rubber stamp.

Rainford, meanwhile, prefers to focus on the history-making action that took place on Nov. 6 when Missouri voters corrected what he called “an injustice made over 150 years ago.”

Citing the strong pro-Proposition A vote, Rainford said, “Clearly we know that both the people of St. Louis and the people of Missouri want this.”

Local control, he said, allows St. Louis’ officials and its residents to govern their own law enforcement agency.  With a new chief and a new system, he said, “Everybody gets a clean start.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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