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Appeals court rejects new standards for St. Louis County municipal police departments

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee speaks against proposed standards for polcie departments in St. Louis County in December 2015.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
A Missouri appeals court has granted a victory to several St. Louis County mayors, including James McGee of Vinita Park, shown here in 2015, in their fight over municipal police standards.

A three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals has ruled that the St. Louis County Council overstepped its boundaries when it tried to impose certain minimum standards on the 50 or so municipal police departments in the county's borders.

The County Council approved those standards in December 2015 over fierce objections from municipal leaders.  Departments would have been required to have at least two officers on duty 24-7 and conduct background checks on prospective officers that included psychological screenings. Elected officials in cities that failed to comply could be jailed, or the St. Louis County police could take over public safety services in the city that failed to comply. County Executive Steve Stenger, a strong proponent of the measure, claimed the Council had the authority to set those standards under a portion of Missouri law that gives county officials the power to pass laws that "tend to enhance the public health." 

Judges Angela Quigless, Robert Dowd and Lisa Van Amburg wrote that while the aftermath of Michael Brown's death in 2014 had revealed problems with smaller police departments, setting minimum standards for those departments had nothing to do with enhancing public health.

"[P]roof ... that there is a need for improved policing standards in the municipal police departments of St. Louis County is simply not necessary for resolution of the issue before us," the court wrote. "However real, important and urgent the need might be, the County can only legislate if it has the authority to do so. The positive impact that improved law enforcement may have on the public — including the extent to which it improves the community's physical and mental well-being — is simply not what was meant by 'enhance public health'" in state law.

In a statement, Stenger said he is reviewing the appeals court ruling, but remains committed to ensuring quality policing for all county residents.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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