Two-officer cars, special training, and a focus on community policing are the hallmarks of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Special Response Unit.
The unit began operating last week. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, County Executive Steve Stenger and members of the unit officially unveiled it Tuesday, at its new headquarters in north St. Louis County.
“In many ways, we can have our cake and we can eat it too, with this,” Belmar said. “It’s about capacity and agility. If you lock police officers down into a geographical precinct, but then all of a sudden we realize that we have an acute problem somewhere else in the county, this gives us the agility to move officers very quickly.”
The unit will eventually have 24 officers and five supervisors. Though they will be based in north county along with other special teams like SWAT and K-9, officers will respond countywide, whether it’s to help with an emergency like a missing child or to boost manpower in areas dealing with a lot of 911 calls or violent crime.
“The data will drive us for the most part where the issues are,” said Lt. Ray Rice, the unit’s commander. “And I foresee that, after 21 years on the department, most of the data will drive us to central and north county. There will be occasions where you might have a spike in car thefts in Affton, or whatever it might be that is the crime of the week or the crime of the month in west county. Those will be things that we will address.”
Rice said officers will also know whom to call to help a family that might be struggling with a child who won’t go to school, or a father who has turned to petty crime in an effort to make child support payments.
“The regular beat officer doesn’t necessarily have the ability to dedicate the necessary time to do those things, and we will,” Rice said. He added that he’s comfortable with his staff taking on more of a social worker role.
“The regular beat officers are basically like firemen,” he said. “They show up, they put out the fire, and then they go to the next fire. We are the ones who want to prevent the fire from happening in the first place.”
The SRU building is on Lucas and Hunt Road, across the street from the headquarters of the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The district covers some of the higher-crime areas of the county, which are also the ones that have the most difficult relationships with police.
But disrict Superintendent Charles Pearson said having SRU officers in those areas will be beneficial.
“It’s not so much for me about the frequency as much as, if this is an added set of caring, qualified adults to interact with our children and families, that works for me,” he said. “If you said yes to do this, it means you have a heart for people, theoretically.” He was pleased that all officers on the unit will be trained in de-escalation.
“It’s not more policing. It’s really a different approach to policing,” Stenger said.
The SRU is modeled on the Community Action Team, a smaller unit the department operated between 2000 and 2008.
“The difference is the size,” Belmar said. “While that was really worthwhile, and while it was good, I really felt like we didn’t have enough capacity to really point in this direction.”
Funding for the SRU comes from Proposition P, the sales tax increase voters approved in April 2017. A spokesman for Stenger said rehabbing the leased space to house the SRU and other units will cost about $330,000 and should be complete by the end of July.
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Abigail Censky contributed to this report.