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'We run the department, the county does not.' The politics behind St. Louis County's police review

This week, though, some board members showed they are not Page’s puppets.
Credit: KSDK

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — This week, I saw the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners throw its weight around for the third time in my career.

Each time, it’s happened under a different chief.

And a different county executive.

The board includes five people handpicked by the county executive.

County Executive Sam Page picked four members of the current board after a jury awarded a police sergeant, who said he was passed over promotions because he is gay, $20 million.

This week, though, some board members showed they are not Page’s puppets.

Page announced that he had accepted an offer from the St. Louis business community to pay for a review of the police department.

Chairman William “Ray” Price told me, “We run the department, the county does not."

He said Page never consulted the board about the review. They never approved it. And, as of Wednesday, he said they still didn’t know enough about it to say whether they would allow it to go on.

RELATED: St. Louis County, Urban League announce independent review of police department

That said, Price acknowledged that the board is interested in working with any entity that is interested in helping the department become a better place.

But, until he knows more about the proposed review, he said he can’t be sure it’s the right approach to do so.

The last time I saw the police board show its muscle was in 2016.

I reported then in the Post-Dispatch that former Chief Jon Belmar had written a letter to a judge on behalf of a former police board member’s nephew. He was facing federal prison time for his role in a multi-million-dollar marijuana operation that St. Louis County detectives and other agencies spent years investigating and dismantling.

They issued a written reprimand to the chief.

Belmar’s predecessor, former Chief Tim Fitch also knows what it’s like to have a police board upset at him.

He once recommended that the University of California-Los Angeles’ Center for Policing Equity review the department’s racial profiling policies and protocols after he fired a white lieutenant accused of ordering officers to profile Black people in south St. Louis County shopping centers.

He told me this week that board members – then handpicked by former County Executive Charlie Dooley – nixed the idea, telling him they couldn’t be sure the firm would be “police friendly” enough.

He said he was taken back by their balking.

“I said, ‘Don’t you want to know if this stuff is really going on?’’ Fitch said. “Apparently not. They wanted more control over what the study found.”

Years later, the police board – now with a few new faces sprinkled in by former County Executive Steve Stenger – hired back the lieutenant Fitch fired, but demoted him, saying an internal affairs investigation didn’t convince them he issued the racist orders.

Fitch said he respected the board's decision, and still does because the process the department’s founding fathers put in place worked.

The fired lieutenant, Patrick “Rick” Hayes, got his “trial” in front of the police board to appeal Fitch’s decision to terminate him. And the board got to make the ultimate decision.

“That’s why they’re there,” he said. “To run the police department.”

Fitch, now a councilman, has been watching the tension between the current board and Page brewing.

In a tweet, Fitch criticized one of the former law enforcement leaders, Charles Ramsey, who is to lead the review that Page said he ordered.

“None of the agencies Charles Ramsey worked at were accredited. He worked at Chicago, Washington DC and Philadelphia. Those are all stellar agencies to be held up to with great policies and practices?”

He also wrote a letter to Price Thursday calling out Page for touting his approval of the review in political ads within days of announcing it.

“I am writing to urge you to reject any political interference with your duties as delegated to you by the people of St. Louis County. History reveals it was politics that ultimately doomed the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office in 1954, which led to the formation of a non-political, professionally managed police department with oversight by a civilian Board of Police Commissioners,” he wrote.

Seems like the board already got the memo.

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