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Byers' Beat: When a Centene executive comments on policing in St. Louis, consequences follow

Jennings mayor, St. Louis County Police Board member and St. Louis County Police Association weigh in on secret pilot program between city and county police
Credit: St. Louis Business Journal / UPI

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Jennings Mayor Yolanda Austin is the St. Louis area’s new "it girl".

“Everybody’s calling me,” she said Friday. “Everybody wants to meet with me.”

That everybody includes Centene Corporation executives, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton.

And it’s because she expressed outrage at their decisions to include her city in a 120-day pilot program with St. Louis’ Sixth District.

The program’s existence surfaced during a conference earlier this week called Achieving An American Breakthrough, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Verizon.

The St. Louis Business Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Centene Corp. CEO Michael Nierdorff praised cooperation between the city and county police departments.

St. Louis County Police Department spokesman Sgt. Benjamin Granda told the Journal, "the collaboration does center on information sharing."

He added there had been a joint roll call on Oct. 16 between city and county officers and the dialogue started weeks, if not months, before that between the commanders of the respective areas.

St. Louis’ Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told the newspaper the pilot program included information sharing between commanders in those target areas.

5 On Your Side’s Jasmine Payoute reported Thursday that the news led Mayor Austin to fire off a fiery letter to Nierdorff, Page, Barton and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, which read, in part, “We will not be told what actions will occur in our city without being included in the conversation and provided a seat at the roundtable.”

Austin’s phone started ringing as news of her letter spread.

Page sent her a letter Thursday, which Austin considered an apology. 

It ended with the line, "We must have the humility to recognize where we fall short and the urgency to do something about it."

It also mentioned that he consulted with Prosecutor Wesley Bell, Judge Ray Price, chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, and Barton, who assigned Lt. Col. Troy Doyle to provide "essential coordination with the review," according to the letter.

The mention of Doyle's name caught the attention of his attorney, Jerome Dobson. Doyle filed a lawsuit against Page earlier this year alleging he wasn't chosen to become the next police chief because he is Black. 

"I don't think they're keeping Troy fully abreast of what's going on just like they're not keeping Jennings fully aware of what's going on," Dobson said. "I have reason to believe he is not being given all of the information as to what's going on, and I'm going to leave it at that."

By Friday, she had meetings scheduled with some of the most powerful people in the region.

“That was quick wasn’t it?” she quipped.

For their part, Centene officials wrote a statement, which read in part, “We know that the mayor has expressed her desire to see safer streets in Jennings and our region and we applaud and share that goal. We look forward to sharing more information on this police review once complete. We want to remind everyone that we have one motive that we hope everyone shares: a safer community for all residents, men women and children.”

St. Louis County Police Board Commissioner Dr. LJ Punch then resigned.

Punch was the lone opposition vote on a Centene-led study of the county police department proposed earlier this summer. Punch said the study had been negotiated with Page and Centene leaders behind closed doors.

The St. Louis County Police Association is fired up, too.

Business Manager Matt Crecelius said the union knew Centene was paying the consulting firm, Teneo, to review the city and county police departments.

But the real purpose of the study now looks to be a revival of a plan to combine the city and county police departments.

“We support information sharing, which has always gone on, but we are the county police department and they are the city police department, and the residents of those two areas do not want their police force used to patrol the other areas,” Crecelius said.

Crecelius believes Centene has been angling to combine the police departments for years.

A preliminary plan to combine the departments that former St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar once drafted went nowhere.

But Centene has since hired him.

The company has also donated more than $200,000 to Page’s campaign -- $25,000 of which arrived just after his primary win.

“Sam Page sold the police department,” Crecelius said. “When in the history of government has a private company been given such unfettered access to the police department and it just so happens they’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to the county executive?”

Page’s spokesman Doug Moore has denied Centene has any influence because of its campaign donations to his boss.

“Page’s spokesperson wants to say this has nothing to do with campaign donations, but that is the exact excuse Steve Stenger gave when talking about his pay-to-play campaign donations,” Crecelius said.

Austin isn’t ready to go that far with her criticisms.

She said for now, she believes Page and Centene leaders have seen the error of their ways.

She noted she spent 31 years as an educator for Saint Louis Public Schools.

“My background as an educator and a principal with SLPS gives me a different outlook on leadership and working together,” she said. “They recognize things should have been done a little differently and they are correcting it.

“I believe they see where things went wrong and we are now working together for the betterment of our city. It’s a start. We’ll see what comes out of that.”