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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: County cities band together to oppose Stenger's police standards push

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee waits his turn to speak at least week's St. Louis County Council meeting. McGee opposes a measure establishing standards on local police departments.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Vinita Park Mayor James McGee waits his turn to speak at least week's St. Louis County Council meeting. McGee opposes a measure establishing standards on local police departments.

It’s pretty difficult to find two municipalities that differ more than Florissant and Glen Echo Park.

Florissant is one of St. Louis County’s largest and oldest cities – and possesses a fairly sophisticated police department. The roughly 160-person strong Glen Echo Park is one of the county’s smallest municipalities with a land area consisting of a whopping 0.03 square miles. It contracts with Normandy for police service.

But leaders of the two cities share a commonality: They’re both strongly opposed to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s push to establish standards on municipal police departments.

Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider called the move an attack on his city’s “sovereignty,” while Glen Echo Park Board of Trustees chairman Victoria Valle feared it would limit the town’s policing choices. (Although Valle also emphasized during her speech that she supports high standards for police protection.)

“We have old people in our community. Very many of our people are retired. We have no businesses. We have very, very little in and out of our community,” Valle said during last week’s St. Louis County Council meeting. “We chose Normandy (for police service). We love Normandy. They know us. They take care of us. And my constituents feel safe. That’s what’s most important to us. Not a lot of fighting about standards.”

Valle and Schneider were part of a wave a municipal opposition to Stenger’s initiative. These officials and the executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League have bristled at what they see as an unconstitutional overreach – especially since Stenger’s office could effectively dissolve departments that don’t conform to the bill’s guidelines.

“We will not wait until the county targets us directly to stop heavy-handed tactics,” said Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz, whose city would probably meet all of the standards in Stenger’s proposal. “Creve Coeur will continue to uphold the Constitution and its rights to govern itself.”

The opposition to Stenger’s proposal really isn’t that surprising, as there’s been palpable tension between St. Louis County’s government and municipalities for decades. University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones said other St. Louis County executives – such as Lawrence Roos – tried to establish municipal standards through unsuccessful ballot initiatives.

But Jones pointed out that when Roos pursued those standards, some “professionalized” cities like University City and Webster Groves weren’t necessarily opposed. And he noted that in recent years, municipalities have been deeply split on whether to change the distribution system for a 1-cent sales tax.

Still, Jones said there might be more unity now in opposing Stenger’s initiative because county cities are feeling more pressure to change.

“It’s a higher level than it’s been in the past. It’s not partisan in the sense of Republican-Democrat,” Jones said. “It’s a question of local control, which local body is going to have the control? The county or the individual municipalities?”

Indeed, county municipalities have become more upfront in opposing initiatives that they see as threatening their existence. Even before Michael Brown’s shooting death, cities large and small opposed a possible merger between St. Louis and St. Louis Countyespecially if it resulted in a “mega-merger” that consolidated municipalities.

And earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a sweeping municipal overhaul bill – a measure that limits the percentage of traffic-fine revenue cities can keep and sets standards for county cities. The biggest opponents of the measure were municipal leaders – especially ones representing predominantly African-American cities. (Interestingly, some who spoke last Tuesday expressed relief that the new state law provided up to six years to adhere to some of the standards – as opposed to a few months under Stenger’s proposal.)

“It’s part of a larger perspective now that [the state municipal overhaul] crystallized as well,” Jones said. “And that is the municipalities of St. Louis County feel that they are being targeted by the state and now by the county executive. And that threatens their autonomy and the concept of local control. So you see more unity because of that, I think. This is part of a larger battle and a larger struggle.”

A disputed nexus

For his part, Stenger has argued that the county’s charter provision regulating health allows him to move forward with his proposal. He’s also made the case that it’s in the best interest of county citizens for cities to have high-quality police departments. 

St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar joined Stenger on Wednesday in announcing the minimum standards proposal.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar joined Stenger last month in announcing the minimum standards proposal.

“This is a problem that has existed in St. Louis County for decades,” Stenger said last month. “And it has to be addressed. It needs to be addressed now. Perhaps it should have been addressed a long time ago. I’ve been in office for 10 months, and I’ve been working closely with law enforcement to address this issue. And I think it is perhaps one of our very most important public health issues we face in St. Louis County.”

Before a bevy of municipal leaders spoke out against his plan, St. Louis County Department of Health director Faisal Kahn laid out a case linking competent policing with public health.

Kahn said “trust between law enforcement and the community (it is to) serve and protect has profound implications for public health.” He pointed to initiatives from the St. Louis County Police Department that he says have made a different in bolstering community health.

“Safe communities are healthy communities,” Kahn said. “The element of trust is very hard to quantify. What we do know is that there remains serious issues to work on in the St. Louis region. The fact is that events over the last 18-odd months have led to a loss of public trust. While rebuilding that trust can be hard, it is not impossible.”

But adversaries of this bill, including the St. Louis County Municipal League, aren’t buying Stenger’s argumentation. It’s widely expected that if the St. Louis County Council passes Stenger’s proposal, cities will file a lawsuit.

“I am not an attorney, and I would leave that up to legal counsel,” said Municipal League Executive Director Pat Kelly. “But all of the municipal attorneys that we have talked to believe that would be a stretch and that again that it’s unconstitutional for St. Louis County to regulate policies and procedures for local police departments.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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