One of the big selling points of the city-county merger plan from the Better Together group is that it would eliminate dozens of often-tiny police departments in the county, along with the county and city police departments, and replace them with one, unified metro-city cop shop.
There are 55 separate police departments in St. Louis County, and 75 percent of them are unaccredited. By any measure of good governance, that’s insane. Having several dozen small police departments unaccredited by any professional agency means bad cops can get fired from one jurisdiction, and then just go down the road and get another job.
It makes economic sense for the tiny town police departments to do that. Paying for training and police certification for officers is expensive. Why bother, when you can simply hire a cop dismissed by another local department. Sure, their record may be spotty, but at least the small suburbs won’t have to pay for their training. As everything from Ferguson to municipal court abuses stemming from traffic arrests have shown us, it’s a lousy model for law enforcement.
Instead, Better Together recommends, as part of creating a new metro city, that the entire city and county now be protected by one big police force with around 3,700 employees. The executive summary to their report notes: “One department can be held accountable, with oversight, by all of the metro city’s citizens, while also providing the best-practice level of neighborhood community policing that residents and police crave.”
To Better Together, a bigger police department is a better police department, and a large, accredited department will be a competent, professional law enforcement organization. Unfortunately, exhibit A against that argument is the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is big, with around 1,330 cops and 1,800 total employees. It’s accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. And it’s a mess.
The dysfunction of the city police doesn’t necessarily mean that Better Together’s idea is a bad one. It does mean that even a large, accredited department can become a mess given the right circumstances. The city police department has everything the “best practices” people might want – funding, personnel, civilian oversight, and a chief who talks a good game about community involvement.
It also patrols a city with one of the world’s highest murder rates and per capita, shoots suspects at a higher rate than any other big city department. It has a major racism problem. It doesn’t make arrests in half of its murders. But mainly, it seems to have hired some sketchy people who would be more at home prowling the halls of the Trump White House than patrolling the streets of St. Louis.
Consider officers William Olsten and Joseph Schmitt. When they shot a 22-year-old patron outside of a South Side bar frequented by cops in April 2018, city police said they expected the 22-year-old to be charged because he shot at them first. It turns out the patron allegedly grabbed his own gun only after being aggressively approached by the plainclothes off-duty officers outside the bar. Both Schmitt and Olsten were charged with assault and armed criminal action.
It also turns out Olsten is subject of a federal lawsuit, charging that he pepper-sprayed four protestors without provocation during 2017 protests against the acquittal of city cop Jason Stockley on charges of killing a suspect and then planting a gun on him. One of the people Olsten pepper-sprayed was livestreamer Heather DeMian, who was shooting video from her wheelchair when she was hit.
Then there’s the “Russian Roulette” case of Officer Nathaniel Hendren, who’s been charged with involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action in the shooting death of Officer Katlyn Alix at Hendren’s home. Hendren and his partner were on duty, left their district, and drove to Hendren’s apartment, where Alix, who was off duty, met them at 1 a.m. Statements claim Hendren and Alix were playing a version of Russian Roulette by aiming a revolver with one bullet in it at each other and repeatedly pulling the trigger.
Now, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner claims the police department has tried to interfere with charges in the case, trying to stop investigators from taking tests for drugs and alcohol from Hendren and his partner. The tests were finally taken, but were grabbed by the police Internal Affairs Division, which may mean the samples can’t be used in court, even though Gardner’s office said there was “probable cause at the scene that drugs or alcohol may be a contributing factor.” Gardner says city police are trying to obstruct her office’s investigation.
Then, there’s the case of Officers Dustin Boone, Randy Hays, Christopher Myers, and Bailey Colletta. All four have been indicted by a federal grand jury – Boone, Hays, and Myers for beating a black undercover police officer during the 2017 Jason Stockley protests, and Colletta for helping cover it up by lying to a federal grand jury. Part of the evidence consists of text messages among the cops about how much fun it is to beat demonstrators under cover of darkness. The undercover cop who was beaten, Luther Hall, still hasn’t been able to return to work.
Finally, there’s the case of 28 city cops whose names we don’t know, officers suspected of lying previously in various circumstances ranging from initial statements to Internal Affairs reports. Because of that, all 28 have been put on an “exclusion list” (also known in law enforcement as a Brady List) preventing them from bringing any cases for prosecution to the Circuit Attorney. The idea, stemming from the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v Maryland, is that officers who’ve lied before poison any case they touch. So far, the Circuit Attorney’s office has had to dismiss over 90 cases the 28 city cops have been involved with.
All of those cases show what the problem is. No matter the department’s size or its accreditation status, it’s going to fail if it’s filled with violent yahoos rather than law enforcement professionals.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.