The City of Wellston has dissolved its police department to form a new municipal cooperative that will pool police services. That’s good news, right?
A tiny municipality has realized it’s ridiculous to operate its own armed police department patrolling not even one square mile – 0.93 miles, to be precise – inhabited by 2,313 people, right?
And, mindful of the Better Together report conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), municipal officials are self-starting the clustering of municipal police departments that PERF called for in its report, right?
Wellston did dissolve its police department, and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, but it’s not likely the fruits of diligently studying the Better Together / PERF report and reflecting on best police practices. Nor is it the instigation of larger regional clusters of municipal police departments that PERF called for.
Wellston and Vinita Terrace now join Vinita Park in the North County Police Cooperative, to be policed by the Vinita Park Police Department. At 0.71 square miles, Vinita Park is even smaller than Wellston. Vinita Park Police Chief Tim Swope told media his department has 21 officers and will add eight to ten cops for the new co-op.
The Vinita Park boys have their work cut out for them on their new beat, as Wellston is the most violent municipality in the region, according to Better Together, with a violent crime rate of 35.9 per 1,000 residents – more than twice as violent as the next muni on the list, Velda City.
The North County Police Cooperative does not match any regional police cluster recommended by PERF, though PERF did recommend that Wellston cashier its police department and merge with Beverly Hills, Hillsdale, Northwoods, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Velda City, Velda Village Hills and University City, to be policed by U. City PD or St. Louis County PD. This would be a major scaling up and pooling of police resources in pursuit of a higher professional standard.
That is not what Wellston has done. Wellston has contracted with a police department that patrols an even smaller municipality (Vinita Park), then thrown in yet another municipality, Vinita Terrace, that sprawls over all of 40 acres (but, reportedly, no mule). The three municipalities are not all contiguous. So this is not the beginning of a more rational police clustering in St. Louis County.
However, this could be the taste of municipal disaster capitalism to come. By its own unique dysfunction, Wellston may have stumbled upon the future of bankrupt municipalities to come, in the wake of Senate Bill 5’s tightening of the Mack’s Creek Law that limits municipal predation on the public. If so, things are going to get uglier – a whole lot uglier – before they get better organized.
No-show for ACLU suit
The first thing to be said about the Wellston Police Department is that we didn’t know much of anything about it. That itself is a systematic problem with a proliferation of police municipalities – there are so many police agencies to seek for public information, and so many to sue when they break Missouri law by failing to provide public information.
One such law suit provides a window into how deeply rooted dysfunction – and, possibly, criminality – may be in Wellston and its police department.
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a Sunshine Law suit against the City of Wellston because the city had failed to respond to the ACLU’s requests for public documents pertaining to allegations that city officials have interfered with Wellston police officers doing their jobs.
Amazing, the City of Wellston never responded to the suit. It never handed over the requested records or bothered to appear in court before Judge Joseph L. Walsh III. As a result, on April 15 Judge Walsh issued default judgment against the City of Wellston. The judge ordered Wellston to pay the ACLU’s attorney fees, plus a penalty of $5,000, with total bill due of $6,322.40, which Wellston has not paid.
Further, Judge Walsh ordered Wellston to provide the ACLU with “complete, unredacted copies” of all of the public records it had requested – a mix of police reports and related documents, disposition records for court summonses, meetings minutes and closed session minutes, and all city records related to the son of a Wellston Council member.
The Wellston Council member, Janet Dixon, and her son, Terrance Dixon, are ultimately at the bottom of all of this legal mess, as Fox 2 reported back in February. But imagine what else may emerge when and if Wellston turns over those “complete, unredacted copies” of police reports and closed session minutes. Wellston still has not provided those public records to the ACLU.
There are two clear possibilities here. The public records that Wellston is withholding may be so outrageous and damning that the city is disbanding its police department in a “Hail Mary” attempt to make the problems go away along with the department. Paper shredders may be working overtime in Wellston. But then again, it is impossible to know what Wellston might want to shred when it won’t release its public records.
The other possibility here (and it could be a little of both) is that Wellston is completely broke. Too broke to pay an attorney to defend its interests in court. Too broke to pay the ACLU $6,322.40 – even when a judge orders the payout. Too broke, ultimately, to field a police department – even one where the cops purchase their own equipment, as Wellston cops have been doing.
So this could be what it looks like when a municipality goes out of business, surrendering its blood-soaked police department as one of the last acts of its loosening death grip. If SB5 is properly enforced – and municipalities are prevented from shifting their predatory behavior to code violations, once traffic predation is limited – we could be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in St. Louis County.
The EYE wishes AG Koster, who wants to be governor, crusaded a little over Sunshine Law violations.
Better Together had to file a formal complaint with the Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster against the City of Wellston for neglecting to respond to three requests for public records. City Clerk Janice Trigg provided the Missouri Attorney General’s office with an email dated December 17, in which she had forwarded Better Together’s request to Chief of Police G.T. Walker and Wesley Bell, acting as city attorney. More than 80 days have passed and no employee or representative of the City of Wellston had contacted Better Together to acknowledge receipt of the request. Wellston finally complied on April 13 – two days before the judge’s default judgment against the city in the ACLU suit.
Yes, that is Wesley Bell, the new Ferguson Council member, on that email scofflaw thread. Bell is taking credit for helping broker the new North County police co-op.
Wellston was not alone in violating Missouri law by failing to honor the public police records requested by Better Together and PERF. Beverly Hills and Lakeshire should take a municipal scofflaw perp walk for continuing to withhold public records about their police departments that were requested according to Missouri law. For municipalities that wield the law at gunpoint to ignore the law about reporting on their police departments to the public is despicable and truly criminal.
One problem is that Koster wants to be governor. The mayors and council members in these municipalities that are scoffing at the Sunshine Law are elected officials. They were elected by the diehard voters who turn out in municipal elections, and Koster will want every single one of them to vote for him to become governor. Koster is too savvy of a political animal not to be calculating a backlash if he goes after these municipal scofflaws.
Wellston also makes Koster’s own scofflaw list as one of 11 police agencies in the state that did not report on their traffic stop data, as mandated by law. Interestingly, Wellston is the only police agency that both delayed for months in providing public records to Better Together for its police report, acting only when the attorney general applied pressure, and never sent data to Koster for his vehicle stops report.
The rest of these scofflaws can at least find the fax machine when the attorney general is pressing them – which makes it all the more important for Koster to press upon these municipalities to provide their public records, since his muscle seems to get results.
The EYE is not joking about the fax machine. Officials at Lakeshire – 2.28 square miles of South County – first told Better Together they had not received their initial request and asked them to fax it over. “We did so immediately and heard nothing,” Marius Johnson-Malone of Better Together told the EYE.
Better Together then pushed Koster to follow up, at which time, Johnson-Malone said, “Lakeshire conveniently found our request, claiming it had gotten lost under the fax machine.”
Other than Wellston, the St. Louis Park Rangers is the only police agency in the region that blew off Koster’s order for vehicle stops data. Outstate, Edgerton, Lilbourn, Morley, Deepwater, Naylor, Camden, Hurley, New Melle and the BNSF Railway Police are vehicle stop scofflaws.