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Memo outlines plan for top-secret joint St. Louis city-county policing venture

Memo outlines plan for top-secret joint St. Louis city-county policing venture

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CLAYTON — St. Louis and St. Louis County police commanders had a list of items to finalize before going public with a corporate-led experiment to combine their departments’ policing efforts in Jennings and a police district in north St. Louis.

An Oct. 21 memo from St. Louis County police Lt. Col. Bryan Ludwig, who commands the patrol division, lays out a detailed operational plan and offers the first glimpse of how city and county police commanders planned to roll out a top-secret initiative — and their last-minute attempts to get city and county leaders on the same page.

The memo, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, was written days before the newspaper disclosed that consultants working for Centene Corp. and other St. Louis companies had designed a program for the two departments to jointly tackle a high-crime area that straddles the city line.

In remarks to a group of U.S. mayors and business executives on Tuesday, Centene CEO Michael Neidorff said business leaders had pushed for the joint operation — and that the companies had to get involved or it wouldn’t happen.

As a result of the newspaper’s reporting, Jennings Mayor Yolanda Austin and the city’s eight council members and an alderwoman in north St. Louis said they were furious and humiliated about being left in the dark. Dr. LJ Punch, a county police commissioner, resigned Thursday rather than “becoming complicit” with a shift in policing strategy designed by consultants without input from the leaders in a majority Black area.

The county police officers union on Friday expressed concern about the secrecy and outside influence on the area’s two largest police departments.

“We learned about this in the newspaper,” Joe Patterson, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, said Friday. He said the ability of Centene, a major donor to St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, to dictate a major policy change was “suspicious at best.”

Centene and other businesses have been pushing behind the scenes for years for the city and county police departments to join forces. In early 2019, then-county police Chief Jon Belmar proposed a county takeover of the city police department. Belmar retired as chief in April and now works for Centene.

Patterson said the county’s rank and file may be willing to merge with St. Louis, but they wanted to be part of the decision.

Ludwig’s memo reveals that county officers would carry handheld radios programmed to city police channels. License plate readers on both sides of the city line would be coordinated. He wrote that his department had just started contacting officials in Jennings and the Jennings School District and area clergy to let them know what was happening. The response was positive, he wrote.

The Post-Dispatch is not reporting on some of the more specific plans laid out in the memo that could give away strategies and technology.

Ludwig cautioned there would soon be so many cops patrolling the area from different units that an office would be set up to track the activity and make sure officers weren’t “walking all over each other.”

He wrote that the county Board of Police Commissioners had granted “tentative” approval on Oct. 16 to move forward with the project. It was unclear in what forum the police board granted any approval. The board did not notify the public of a meeting to discuss business that day.

Police board chairman William “Ray” Price Jr. and commissioners Michelle Schwerin and Mark Gaertner did not respond a reporter’s request for comment on Friday; commissioner Thomasina Hassler could not be reached.

In a joint statement emailed to a reporter, the board said that the department leadership had notified each member on Oct. 16 of “an operational strategy where additional assets would be devoted to serve one of our contract partners, specifically the City of Jennings. The day-to-day operations of the department do not require the meeting or approval of the Board.”

The county police department did not make Chief Mary Barton available for an interview on Wednesday and Thursday. A reporter reached the chief on her cellphone Friday but she immediately hung up when the reporter identified himself.

The county police department had previously framed the operation as routine. Sgt. Ben Granda, a department spokesman, told a reporter in an email on Tuesday that cooperation between police jurisdictions was “not uncommon” and that although commanders from the county and city had been talking for several weeks or months, it was a daytime shooting in Jennings on Oct. 15 that prompted the county to devote more resources to the area.

Ludwig’s memo showed that the project was anything but routine and required a great deal of planning and coordination. He acknowledged that the department had markedly beefed up its presence in Jennings due to “several running gun battles” in preceding days.

“So technically, we are underway,” he wrote.

Earlier this week, St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told a reporter that the joint city-county patrols had been proposed by consultants that were reviewing the city and county departments.

Page had been the first to announce the county’s review in late June. Days later, the county’s Board of Police Commissioners agreed to give the consultants access to the department; Mayor Lyda Krewson agreed to a parallel review of the city police. But the consultants did not provide the county with a scope of work that explained exactly what they were doing.

Centene executive Tom Irwin said in a statement Thursday that the plan using the findings from the consultants’ review was “currently being developed” and that the review would be made public “after appropriate feedback from stakeholders.”

The consultants are Charles H. “Chuck” Ramsey, a retired Washington and Philadelphia police chief, and Daniel Oates, the former police chief in Aurora, Colorado, and Miami Beach, Florida, who now consults with Baltimore through a U.S. Justice Department program. They are part of Teneo, a New York- and London-based CEO advisory group.

Ludwig’s memo did not mention the consultants or their recommendations, and none of the consultants were copied on the memo.

The memo spoke to the secrecy behind the effort — and the open question of where the mayor and county executive stood on it.

“Though we have started the community outreach and added some assets to Jennings, we have not publicly come out and talked about this effort,” he wrote. “Chief Barton is meeting with Dr. Page tomorrow to discuss what the public roll out should look like. I’m not sure where Mayor Krewson or Chief Hayden stand on the issue and I need to be careful how I publicly discuss this before that meeting tomorrow.”

Ludwig also noted that area news media had been asking questions about a joint roll call between officers in the city police department’s 6th District and county police department’s 8th Precinct on Oct. 16.

“I was a little surprised to hear about all of your brass at the joint roll call last week and we had several media inquiries as a result. So if you know of a way to get the Mayor/County Executive and both Chief’s on the same page, I’m all ears.”

The email was addressed to St. Louis police Lt. Col. Mary Warnecke, the department’s commander of community policing, and copied to Barton; Lt. Col. Kenneth Gregory, the deputy county police chief; Lt. Col. Jeff Bader, the county’s commander of special operations; and Capt. Jason Law, the county’s 8th Precinct commander in Jennings.

Warnecke and Ludwig did not respond to requests for comment. Multiple sources identified them as the police officials who worked directly with Teneo. The Post-Dispatch has requested access to their emails to seek a clearer picture of how the partnership came together.

One county police official who was not copied on the email was Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, the county’s commander of operational support, whom Page in late June named as the county’s liaison to Teneo to “provide essential coordination” with the privately funded review.

Doyle is the officer who may be the most familiar with Jennings, having been loaned to the city by then-St. Louis County police Chief Tim Fitch to serve as its acting police chief in 2011 after the city’s police department disbanded.

Doyle, who is Black, lost out when the police board in March voted unanimously to select Barton, who is white, to succeed the retiring Chief Jon Belmar. He filed a federal complaint in late July alleging racial discrimination. The case is pending.

Doyle confirmed in a phone call he did not know about Ludwig’s memo or what was in it.

Editor’s note: The Board of Police Commissioners did not notify the public of a meeting on Oct. 16. An earlier version of this story omitted the word “not.”

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