August 21, 2019

County police chiefs oppose merger

County police chiefs fear the proposed merger would demolish community policing. 

Webster Groves Chief of Police Dale Curtis scoffs when he talks about the proposed merge of the city and county.

St. Louis group Better Together recommended a merge of St. Louis City and County police departments in its proposal to merge the city and county. Many members of the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association (SLAPCA) opposed the plan.

“It would basically demolish the police department here and also significantly reduce the resources to the city of Webster Groves,” Curtis said.

Webster Groves Chief of Police Dale Curtis said the merger would not benefit Webster Groves. Curtis is also a member of SLAPCA.

(From left to right) Captain Greg Perks, John Eppele, Steven Spear, Ahmar Rasool and Erich Weimer pose in front of Webster Groves police station.

SLAPCA Chairperson and Hazelwood Chief of Police Gregg Hall said the merger would take away the police’s connection to the areas they serve. Citizens could no longer have discussions about the policing they’d prefer.

“Municipal districts are going to lose the opportunity to have that personal one-on-one interactions with their police departments,” Hall said. “They’ll lose the opportunity to sit down with their police departments and discuss the types of policing they’d prefer over another.”

Hall’s police department have domestic violence and crime victims coordinators that Hall feared would go away if the merger passes. Hall’s department also holds programs with its community’s churches.

Webster Groves Police Department (WGPD) is one of 55 municipal police departments in St. Louis city and county. All would merge into one metro police department if Better Together’s proposal passes in 2020.

Curtis said one large police department would take away resources and officers from low-crime areas like Webster Groves.

“The issue is that departments like ours have the ability to spend resources, especially human resources, on connections with the community and being more interactive with them,” Curtis said.

Better Together and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conducted a study on the state of St. Louis policing in 2014. The report found that community policing lacked in high-crime areas.

St. Louis’ many municipalities led to fragmented policing, the report wrote. This fragmentation “undermines police operations, and makes it difficult to form effective law enforcement to combat crime locally and regionally” according to the report.

Dave Leipholtz, director of community-based studies at Better Together, said it’s inefficient to have so many police departments. St. Louis City and County police departments don’t share basic crime data.

“That’s a real issue, because you have essentially blind spots where people don’t know what’s going on, maybe in the jurisdiction next door or throughout the region and crime travels,” Leipholtz said.

One police department would cut drastic overspend, Leipholtz said. Better Together’s task force wrote in its report that the consolidation would save citizens money.

It costs $355.20 per St. Louis citizen for policing. Citizens in already-merged cities pay less; Indianapolis, Ind. ($242.02 per capita) and Louisville, Ky. ($257.06 per capita).

Leipholtz said Better Together doesn’t suggest slashing public safety funding. They recommend police to have better efficiency.

Right now, we have officers that are making 13 to 14 bucks an hour and officers that are making $70,000 or $80,000 a year,” Leipholtz said. “They have a corresponding gap in resources and training opportunity. I think that there’s definitely inefficiencies in the structure we have.”

SLAPCA said in a memo sent to the Webster Groves mayor that St. Louis Police learned valuable lessons since PERF released its report in 2015.

SLAPCA said police learned that police needed a true connection to the people of their community.

“Better Together has ignored years of learning and improvements that Ferguson brought to St. Louis law enforcement and suggests returning to a structure that unfortunately would almost certainly result in another such crisis in this community,” the memo wrote.

Better Together’s plan makes wrong assumptions about police, Curtis said.

“I think police will lose the type of connection most of the communities have now,” Curtis said. “I don’t think a larger department is incapable of making those connections, but smaller departments would do a better job than a larger department would.”

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