Nearly a year ago, a new sheriff of sorts arrived in town. The city of Vinita Park announced that it was taking over policing duties for Wellston, its larger neighbor, and changing its name to the North County Police Cooperative.
Now, the Cooperative patrols five cities in north-central St. Louis County. And residents say they have noticed big changes.
For years, the city of Pine Lawn was a poster child for poor policing tactics.
"The department was used against the people in the community," said Roslyn Brown, who recently won a seat on the Pine Lawn Board of Aldermen in part by fighting back against a 2013 arrest. “Sometimes it wasn’t just for the sake of gaining revenue, but it was for political retaliation as well. There was a community that was silenced, placed in fear.”
In March, Pine Lawn became the latest city to join the North County Police Cooperative. And Brown’s now singing a much different tune.
"I believe that the North County Police Cooperative, they’re helping us really take ownership of our community, and it’s a very welcoming effort."
'We are much more community-oriented than most police departments.'
Tim Swope was chief of the Vinita Park Police Department when the conversations about consolidating resources began. He retained the role in the cooperative.
"When we said partnership, we mean it," he said. "That’s not what the citizens have been used to sometimes. They’re not used to the police getting out of their cars and having events, taking kids to Six Flags."
The cooperative helps out with 45 youth basketball teams, hosts barbecues and movie nights, and recently treated 40 teachers to a Cardinals game in a suite.
"I get tired about hearing about community engagement and all that stuff," Swope said. "The truth is, community policing is if you're willing to give back to the citizens that you serve."
Because of the way statistics are reported, it’s difficult to know whether the outreach is helping fight crime. But Capt. Willie Epps, a former Pine Lawn officer and now the commander of the Pine Lawn precinct, said he believes that's the case.
"We had a homicide over on Peyton Lane," Epps said. "We had people come to us, and we were able to get that all cleaned up. And any other time, people would kind of stay away from the police department. We probably never would have gotten that information."
The same thing is happening in Wellston, said Sgt. Susie Lorthridge, a former St. Louis police officer. She was out on patrol recently when she was called to respond to a fight between two young women. Because it was a nice day, there were several witnesses.
In minutes, she and other officers had determined it was part of an ongoing feud over a boy.
"Before, I think they would have fled into their homes and just pretended like nothing happened," Lorthridge said. "We would have been able to figure out what was going on the in the long run, but it's a lot easier to do your job when you're partnered with the public."
The Cooperative has 10 officers on the street at once, Lorthridge said, leaving more time to pay attention to crime hotspots. In Wellston, that means sitting on the lot of the Family Dollar at Kienlen and Martin Luther King, which is targeted by thieves looking for laundry detergent.
Community policing, Swope said, also means listening to what the elected officials want from his department.
"Some municipalities just want patrol. That's it," he said. "We have drug detectives, and others want to know that we're out there doing surveillance and developing information to stem some of those problems. Some have problem areas with traffic enforcement."
The involvement of the elected officials is crucial, said Chris Krehmeyer of Beyond Housing. The agency's 24:1 Initiative has been exploring opportunities for greater cooperation among the 24 cities in the Normandy School District.
"I think the public narrative in the region post-Michael Brown has been all municipalities are bad and are poorly run and can't govern themselves. And we think that that's just not accurate," Krehmeyer said. "Were there some bad things that happened in our courts and our police departments? Absolutely. But we don't think that that means everybody is bad. They should have opportunities to make decisions about what's in their best interest rather than having changes forced upon them."
Krehmeyer said he's heard nothing but positive things about the Cooperative from residents. Chief Tim Swope said officers are happier too.
"Driving around a town of seven streets, that can be monotonous. And every time we partner with another community, we need different job descriptions — detectives, drug officers, K-9 officers. There’s much more out there that they can do now," he said.
When the cooperative was formed, every officer from the old departments could apply for positions with the cooperative. But not everyone met the strict hiring standards Swope put in place.
"Some people were left out," he said. "That's not good for them, but it's good for all the communities."
The Cooperative has also started a self-review process as part of accreditation by the Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation, to comply with parts of the municipal reform measure known as Senate Bill 5.
Swope said he expects the Cooperative will get bigger.
"But if it stopped today, we did it. We didn’t just talk about it, we got it done and we made places better," he said. "And they can't take that away."
The Cooperative by the Numbers
Area: 166.4 acres
People as of 2010 census: 1,363
Number of officers before joining NCPC (as of 2014): Eight
Area: 390.4 acres
People as of 2010 census: 3,275
Number of officers before joining NCPC (as of 2014): 15, and three civilian employees
Area: 460.8 acres
People as of 2010 census: 1,880
Number of officers before joining NCPC (as of 2014): 17
Area: 38.4 acres
People as of 2010 census: 277
Number of officers before joining NCPC (as of 2014): One (contracted with St. Louis County)
Area: 595.2 acres
People as of 2010 census: 2,313
Number of officers before joining NCPC (as of 2014): 23, and four civilian employees
North County Police Cooperative
Area: 1,651.2 acres
People as of 2010 census: 9,108
Number of officers: 50 (10 on the street at any time)