When Better Together formed last year, it was already planning to examine how the region polices itself — especially because St. Louis County has so many different departments that patrol towns and cities.
But the review became more than just a theoretical exercise after the shooting death of Michael Brown. The roughly 60 police departments throughout St. Louis County underwent intense scrutiny for aggressive ticketing, little racial diversity and the targeting of African Americans. There have been widespread calls for substantial changes.
This white-hot spotlight prompted the Better Together organization to do things a bit differently than it did with its previous studies on municipal finances or public health. The group contracted with the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based group often used to suggest changes to police departments. The organization plans to talk with several thousand people to determine specific alterations to the region’s policing.
“Americans really value the very personal nature of policing. Having said that, what is going on in this area with Better Together is really an appreciation for can we do things more effectively?” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of PERF. “Can we deliver services to the citizens of this area, to this region, in a more effective way?”
The research forum has worked for police agencies in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. It has also studied law enforcement in Scotland, Israel and Jordan.
It’s not unusual for a metro area to have a lot of police departments, Wexler said. But that approach may have some unintended consequences.
Since arriving in St. Louis, Wexler said he’s learned that departments in the region don’t have a good way to examine an officer’s history in other agencies. That became an issue of sorts because Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Brown in August, previously worked for the now-disbanded Jennings Police Department.
“When a police department decides that someone today isn’t effective for whatever reasons and they let them go, there’s no way to share that information with other police departments in this state,” Wexler said. “You could have an officer who’s had years of problems with one agency, and another agency has to take years to find out that they’re not effective.”
He hopes that "we will produce recommendations for developing a system to track officers like that.”
Since Brown was killed, some observers have proposed that smaller police departments should be dissolved and cities should contract with bigger agencies, such as the St. Louis County Police Department. That occurred in cities like Jennings and the idea has been bandied about as an option for Ferguson. (That option could be difficult to pull off because it may require a public vote.)
When asked if that would be a possible recommendation, Wexler said: “If that’s what they want, sure.”
“Our job is to tell their story. Our job is to listen to them. Our job isn’t to make assumptions about what we think they want,” Wexler said. “Our job is to listen to what they want and then kind of put together about what makes sense. And then offer some suggestions to the Better Together group. And we’ll say, ‘listen — here’s what we heard.’”
Pushback in the past
Todd Swanstrom, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it may make logical sense for small communities to contract with larger police departments. But, he added, “There’s real political opposition and you can’t just ride roughshod over these objections.”
“Policemen can be very valuable politically. They spend all day walking around the community,” Swanstrom said. “And people like a certain style of policing. And the county does policing in a certain way. There are all sorts of interesting reasons why municipalities haven’t done what makes total sense.”
One issue, he said, is that people within a city or town may demand policing of a certain intensity.
“The thing about police officers is they’re known as street-level bureaucrats, which is to say they actually make policy decisions on the street. And they know that,” Swanstrom said. “We know that police have tremendous discretion in how they can enforce the law. They can look the other way for minor violations or they can pound on people for minor violations like pants being too low or having a tail light out or having bright lights.
“So the fact that there’s so much discretion means that this is a very sensitive position,” he added. “And that’s why the minority community wants minority officers because they figure there’s real racial discrimination in how you enforce the rules in the laws. They really feel like they’re being enforced differentially.”
Speaking more broadly, Wexler said his organization has offered recommendations that were controversial. That includes recommending to police departments that they shouldn’t use deadly force on people in motor vehicles.
“That has become very controversial in cities," Wexler said. “Some police chiefs have gotten no confidence votes because of implementing that recommendation.
“Our job isn’t to tell Better Together what they want to hear,” he added. “Our job is to provide an independent assessment of the region and have them decide where to go from here.”
The study is expected to take about six months to complete. Wexler said when it’s done, he’s hoping the report won’t “be a waste of money.”
He hopes that “people will say ‘you know what? That’s pretty good. There are some things in there that we can do, some steps we can take. And there’s some things that we couldn’t say ourselves that an outside entity could say.”
Better Together is a project that is examining the government structure throughout St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis. It is sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.