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St. Louis County police chief holds news conference

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar speaks to reporters on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at police headquarters in Clayton. Belmar was joined by Roland Corvington, chairman of the board of police commissioners. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON • The Justice Department has handed down its evaluation of law enforcement in Ferguson. Next up: The St. Louis County police.

But two federal reviews of the region’s second-largest police department are much different from the civil rights investigations that recently put Ferguson back into the international spotlight and sent six city officials out the door.

These do not come with the threat of a civil rights lawsuit, something that will enforce reforms in Ferguson.

They are conducted by the Community Oriented Policing Services arm of the Justice Department — not the Civil Rights Division, which recently delivered scathing criticism of treatment of blacks by the Ferguson police and municipal court.

One, a process called collaborative reform, was requested by county police to assess what the department is doing well, or not.

The other, called an after-action report, was initiated by the Justice Department to examine how police from the county, St. Louis city, Ferguson and the Missouri Highway Patrol handled the first two weeks of protests that followed the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white Ferguson officer, Darren Wilson.

A Justice Department investigation found that Wilson was justified to shoot.

Initial reports from both reviews are weeks from completion, with perhaps years of follow-up expected.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said this week that he was urging the Justice Department to finalize reviews of the county police to clear the way for the possibility that its officers might be asked to take over for the Ferguson department.

“There is likely to be some role, either short-term management or longer than that, for the county department,” Blunt suggested.

Ronald Davis, who directs the COPs program for the Justice Department, said in November that he expected the collaborative reform process to take about two years and include an initial report and at least two “progress reports,” six months and one year after the first.

Las Vegas was the first to undergo the process, in 2012, and its initial report contained 75 recommendations on use of force, Davis said.

“All three are public; the community will know exactly what we think,” he said. “They will know what recommendations we provided. They will know whether or not the department actually implemented any of those recommendations.”

Requests for information are a strain on resources and manpower, said St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar, who asked in August for the review. But he said it was the right thing to do.

He told the St. Louis County Police Board this month that he recently had to devote three officers to comply with inquiries after federal researchers added use-of-force policies and procedures to the list of topics under review.

“Use of force isn’t something we felt we needed assistance with,” Belmar said. “But they said, ‘It’s something we always look at,’ so we want to give them a comprehensive representation on our use of force.”

He said his department averaged about 28,000 arrests a year, with force used in about 2.7 percent.

COLLABORATIVE REFORM

The Justice Department developed collaborative reform as an alternative to the consent decree process used in Ferguson. It is intended to be less costly and more efficient, according to a report published by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2013.

This fiscal year, about $5 million was awarded to five private research groups to conduct the reviews; in St. Louis County it’s the Police Foundation.

Bill Howe, the county police director of operational support, told the police board earlier this month that the Justice Department asked the Police Foundation to have its report ready by April 15.

In Las Vegas, a different group produced a 154-page report in about 10 months. That department asked for the study after stories in the Las Vegas Review newspaper raised questions about officer-involved shootings.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Las Vegas criticized the process as too weak. In a press release titled, “Collaborative Reform Process or Abdication of Responsibility?” the ACLU complained that without enforcement tools, the report, “Can readily be ignored.”

“This result will only enhance community skepticism regarding any ‘good faith’ effort of the police to reform themselves,” it continued.

But Sam Walker, an adjunct professor and federal intervention expert at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, disagrees.

“Given that it’s voluntary, the city or county has already made a commitment to adopt the reforms,” Walker said in an interview.

So if the city reneges, he said, the Justice Department still could turn to a civil rights suit and “go into court with a stronger hand and show they operated in bad faith.”

AFTER-ACTION REVIEW

The Police Foundation’s requests for information have been similar to those coming from researchers with the Institute on Intergovernmental Research, who are conducting the after-action review.

It focuses solely on the actions of the city, county and state officers during the 16 days immediately following Brown’s death, Howe said.

Requests for information have centered on training, recruitment, hiring selections, preparation and response to civil unrest, Howe said.

He said he had been told to expect that report to be complete by the end of March.

Howe likened it to the examination of police response to the deadly Columbine High School attack in Colorado in 1999. He said ... “there were a lot of lessons learned and all law enforcement agencies started thinking more critically about how to respond to active shooters.” He added that if there is large-scale civil unrest elsewhere, “what lessons we learned in St. Louis County can be transferred to other jurisdictions.”

A LINGERING INQUIRY

Unrelated to Ferguson, the county police are under one more review, by the University of California-Los Angeles, after allegations of racial profiling rocked the department in 2013.

Allegations that commanders were ordering officers to target blacks near shopping centers in south St. Louis County surfaced in December 2012. An investigation led to the termination of a lieutenant, who has filed an appeal.

Then-Chief Tim Fitch said several officers heard the lieutenant’s orders, but did not follow them. But Fitch said he sought the study of arrest data to ensure there was no racial profiling.

A spokeswoman for the university’s police leadership consortium could not be reached. Its website says grants allow it to provide services to departments for free.

Howe said the department entered a formal contract in May, but the work was delayed because of challenges in Ferguson. He said it had now resumed. He said it would overlap with the collaborative reform process.

Belmar said that even after the federal reviews are complete, he hoped to keep a continuing relationship with UCLA.

“If we don’t do these things, I think it’s a disservice to the public,” he said.

Chuck Raasch and David Hunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.