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Research group proposes reforms to St. Louis-area policing

Research group proposes reforms to St. Louis-area policing

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Eighteen municipal police departments in north St. Louis County should consolidate, according to a report released Monday by a nonprofit research group that has studied policing in the St. Louis area.

The group also recommended centralized training, data collection and communications for police across St. Louis city and county, and strengthening oversight of officers.

The Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum said the St. Louis area’s fragmented, revenue-oriented policing, uneven standards for law enforcement officers and the perception of racial bias undermine public safety and have contributed to high crime rates and costly services.

The research group last week gave the Post-Dispatch an advance look at its 79-page report, “Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County.”

The report was commissioned by Better Together, a St. Louis-based nonprofit studying possible benefits of regional cooperation, which has published a series of reports pointing to inefficiencies in public safety, public finance, public health and economic development.

Nancy Rice, executive director of Better Together, called the research report the first blueprint for legislators and policymakers to enact reforms.

The Police Executive Research Forum has produced studies on other high-profile police problems. A report for the U.S. Department of Justice about San Diego policing failures came out in March. A 2013 report for the U.S. Border Patrol found that agents were stepping in front of fleeing vehicles to justify shooting at the drivers and had shot at people throwing rocks at them across the border.

Among the police research group’s 2,000 members are St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar; the group said those chiefs were interviewed as key stakeholders but were not part of the investigation.

It said its conclusions were shaped in part by town hall meetings hosted by Better Together; focus groups; interviews with community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement officers and others; data analysis and an extensive review of research.

“We’re hoping that this report will make people stop and think, ‘Is there a way we can do things better?’ because the status quo is not working,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the police research group.

Many St. Louis County police departments are “driven by the need to generate more and more revenue to fund the patchwork of dozens of local governments that exist in the county,” the report said. While crime rates are high in certain areas, “police departments are being pushed into the role of revenue generators” and “away from their traditional roles of community guardians and protectors.”

The report cheered efforts by Missouri legislators to reduce the percentage of revenue that municipalities can get from enforcement of traffic tickets.

CONSOLIDATION PROPOSAL

The report said that while consolidating all police departments would eliminate waste, such a drastic change would not be feasible.

“Attempting to dismantle current policing structures in these areas would be met with community opposition and undermine productive partnerships that currently exist,” the report said.

But it recommended folding several police departments into the University City Police Department, which the organization characterized as stable and professional. Those departments include the communities of Beverly Hills, Hillsdale, Northwoods, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Velda City, Velda Village Hills and Wellston.

The report also proposed combining Berkeley, Calverton Park, Ferguson and Kinloch into a new district to be patrolled by the St. Louis County Police.

And it proposed folding Bellefontaine Neighbors, Country Club Hills, Flordell Hills, Moline Acres and Riverview into the county police department’s Jennings precinct.

While some cities have embraced police department consolidations, others have resisted it. Jennings shut down its scandal-plagued police department in 2011 and signed on for protection from the larger St. Louis County police department, but Floridell Hills, population 822, just launched its own police department in October.

The police research group pointed to a phenomenon known in local policing circles as the “muni shuffle” — the problem of officers leaving one department to avoid disciplinary action, only to be hired by other departments — as hurting the quality of police services.

“The fact that the muni shuffle was the subject of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigative series back in 2003, yet remains a common occurrence today, is cause for concern,” the report said.

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