Chuck Wexler has been executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum for more than twenty years, and before that a Boston police official. He has worked on violence reduction and police tactics in Minneapolis, Chicago, Northern Ireland and Kingston, Jamaica. But he says he saw something altogether new when he was collecting information about police in the St. Louis region.
Wexler was at one of the many town-hall meetings that PERF arranged after the death of Michael Brown, for a study on the area commissioned by the local nonprofit Better Together. A woman stood up and told the story of how she was ticketed because her grass was too high. When she couldn't pay the ticket, a warrant went out for her arrest. She had to go to court to clear it up.
"I've never seen that happen in other places in the country, and that said something to me about the level of interference in people's lives," says Wexler. "Why would you have to go to court about the grass growing too high?"
After several of these town halls, focus groups and interviews with police chiefs as well as the rank-and-file, PERF made a series of recommendations for the region, which were released last week.
Perhaps the most contentious ones were about consolidating many small departments in north county. But Normandy police chief Frank Mininni thinks there's a chance that local cops will do some soul-searching rather than reject the recommendations outright.
"I think your professional departments and the ones who really do care about their communities, I think they're going to take this paper to heart," he says.
Dave Leipholtz, the director of community-based studies for Better Together, says the group commissioned the study of the region's police departments even before August 9, 2014, the day Brown was shot by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The nonprofit researches the possibility of consolidating St. Louis city and St. Louis County.
Better Together sought out PERF to perform the study on policing in the area, Leipholtz says, because of the group's solid reputation.
"PERF was respected and seen as independent," he says.
After collecting data from 58 small police departments in the area, PERF crunched arrest data and came to some interesting conclusions. Here are some highlights:
The local Beverly Hills Police Department made 1,087 "other" arrests (these exclude the most violent offenses like murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft and arson) between 2011 and 2014, "or the equivalent of more than one such arrest each year for every resident of the municipalities it patrols."
The next highest rate of "other" arrests was Pine Lawn, which made 463.3 arrests per 1,000 residents.
Wellston Police Department made 272.4 "other" arrests per 1,000 residents, while its rate of violent crime was 39.8 incidents per 1,000 residents. That crime rate is more than twice what was found in the City of St. Louis, which is criticized in the report for having a violent crime problem.
"That's just astonishing," says Wexler. "What can you be thinking if their priorities are on ticketing rather than reducing crime?"
The PERF report also recommend consolidating many of the smaller departments, as a way to "triage" the trouble with ticketing in north county.
"There's a crisis in north county, and that's why the report focuses on that area," explains Leipholtz.
Here's how PERF would break up the departments:
Cluster #1: Beverly Hills, Hillsdale, Northwoods, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Velda City, Velda Village Hills and Wellston would consolidate under a single police district and merge with either the county PD or the University City police department.
Cluster #2: Berkeley, Calverton Park, Ferguson and Kinloch would consolidate and contract with St. Louis County PD.
Cluster #3: Bellfontaine Neighbors, Country Club Hills, Flordell Hills, Moline Acres and Riverview would fold into the Jennings Precinct of the St. Louis County Police Department.
Not surprisingly, the chiefs of some of these departments were none too pleased with the idea of consolidating, and they sounded off about it in the Post-Dispatch. And even with help from Missouri attorney general Chris Koster, Leipholtz says that nine municipal police departments did not share their data with PERF. Those departments include Beverly Hills, Breckenridge Hills, Country Club Hills, Hillsdale, Kinloch, Lakeshire, St. Ann, Vinita Park and Wellston.
It raises the question: Do the recommendations in the report stand a chance of being implemented? Or are these big ideas headed straight for the trash?
In the short term, Better Together's next move is to decide how to take the PERF recommendations and make them a reality, Leipholtz says. Better Together could simply promote the report to inform policy or legislation, or the nonprofit may push to map the paths to implementation.
"We're going to have some conversations about whether it's our role or somebody else's role to put some numbers around this," he says. "What are the real-world steps that need to be taken to see how much this would cost?"
And they're not just talking to a wall of law-enforcement silence. Leipholtz was complimentary to the departments in Shrewsbury and Normandy for being open and eager to letting in PERF.
"We're always open to looking at ways to improve our delivery of services to the community we serve," says Shrewsbury police chief Jeff Keller. "What's being proposed by PERF, by Better Together -- we're always interested in taking a look at things like this."
Both Keller and Normandy chief Mininni say they're more interested in the report's guidance on standardization of training, hiring practices and accreditation. Mininni also thinks that the additional 120 hours of officer training recommended by the Ferguson Commission is good policy as well.
"Creating a regional police training center -- that just makes sense," says Mininni. "Why do you have two departments that might not be teaching the same things? Why wouldn't you make everything the same?"
Keller says he's skeptical about the consolidation, especially as the leader of the smallest accredited police department in the state.
"Creating some standards administered by the Department of Public Safety -- if you can meet these standards and you're a two person department and your city can afford it, you should be able to," he says. "If you're a 1,000-person department and you can't meet the standards set by the state then you shouldn't be in existence. I think standards are a big part of this, it really isn't about the merger and the consolidation."
Still both chiefs are hopeful that others in the area in law enforcement will be open to change.
"If you would have talked to me six years ago before I got my masters degree, I would have been really closed minded about it," says Mininni. "Leaders have to get outside of the bubble of police culture."
Read the entire PERF report here:
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