Photo by Ray Downs
St. Louis County Police during last year's protests. A bill by County Executive Steve Stenger would force north county municipalities to reach certain standards — or contract with the county for policing.
A turf battle over policing is brewing in north St. Louis County — and it could decide who has ultimate authority over cops in dozens of departments.
Lawyers for a budding coalition of small cities promised to fight County Executive Steve Stenger’s bid to impose uniform standards across the county’s 57 municipal police forces.
The standards would address a wide range of police operations, including criminal background checks and drug screenings for new hires, use-of-force policies and staffing levels of at least one officer and one supervisor 24 hours a day.
The proposed bill would require the County Council's approval before it could be implemented. But critics are already gearing up for a fight.
Stenger doesn’t have the law enforcement experience or the authority to tell locals how to run their police departments, attorneys for Vinita Park and the North County Policing Cooperative wrote in a letter to the county exec.
“Initially, I am interested in knowing your qualifications for evaluating police departments and policing collaboratives, particularly under standards that are vague at best,” attorney Chet Pleban wrote.
Vinita Park is part of the co-op, which expanded the small city’s cop shop to patrol nearby cities. North county neighbors Wellston, Vinita Terrace and Charlack all now contract with the co-op for policing services. The consolidated force has 35 officers, including four part-timers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported
Pleban’s clients see Stenger’s proposal as a challenge to the co-op’s authority, and they’re prepared to go to court if necessary, he warned.
Stenger didn’t respond to the criticism directly, but he has in the past claimed that mandating baselines would make sure people are treated fairly across the county.
“All St. Louis County residents deserve consistent, quality law enforcement provided by well-trained officers,” Stenger said in a statement. “This legislation will establish uniform standards for all police departments and will reinforce trust between law enforcement and the community. The public will know that every police department, no matter the zip code, meets the same standard. This bill will ensure equal access to quality law enforcement and will enhance public health and safety.”
If the bill passes, municipalities would have six months to comply. If they don’t, city officials could face stiff fines and a year in jail.
If Stenger decides a local force is “deficient,” the St. Louis County Police could be sent in to patrol at the expense of the municipality, according to the proposed bill.
A new state law that was passed following weeks of protests in Ferguson has similar aims of standardizing police practices across Missouri during the next six years. The co-op and its supporters say they aren't opposed to standards, but they question whether Stenger has the legal authority to create and impose them.
"I think clearly Ferguson is on everyone's mind," said Lynette Petruska, another attorney for the co-op. "But the other problem with this kind of proposal is the decision maker has a financial interest in the decisions being made." After all, if municipalities are forced to contract with the county instead of the co-op, that means more money for the county.
The proposal operates under the idea the county can dictate laws to city governments that have their own rights and authority, which Petruska says is a dubious assumption.
"Budgets are tight. Taxpayer money is tight," she said. "I would hope the county is clear that they have the power and authority to do this before they waste taxpayer money on something the courts aren't going to uphold."
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