Judge throws out new countywide police standards

New standards called ‘invalid and unenforceable’

Robert E. Jones

Photo by Egan O'Keefe

Robert E. Jones

By Gloria Lloyd

A judge threw out St. Louis County’s new countywide police standards Wednesday, calling them “invalid and unenforceable.”

St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen ruled in favor of the cities in the case about 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sunset Hills City Attorney Robert E. Jones told the Call. The cities are suing the county and County Executive Steve Stenger, who spearheaded the legislation, over what Jones calls a “police takeover bill” but Stenger believes is a necessary step to ensure every county resident has quality police services.

The county will appeal Cohen’s decision, Stenger said in a statement Thursday.

“We will continue to fight to ensure that all county residents have equal access to consistent high-quality law enforcement no matter where they live or travel,” Stenger said.

Jones made the oral arguments last month on behalf of Sunset Hills and the other 15 cities in the case at a hearing before Cohen. The cities sued the county in December, just days after the County Council approved the new police standards over the objections of cities across the county — even those that would meet the standards, like Sunset Hills and Creve Coeur — that saw the new law as an unconstitutional and unprecedented overreach from the county into how cities are run.

Granting the cities’ motion for summary judgment, Cohen agreed with the cities on three counts of their petition — that the legislation should be blocked because it is “illegal and unconstitutional,” that the county has no power over municipal police departments or contracts between cities for police services and has been explicitly blocked from passing such legislation by the Missouri Constitution and the county Charter, and that Stenger and the county “unlawfully fomented” a conflict between cities and the county, according to court records.

The legislation was slated to be enforced six months after Stenger signed it into law Dec. 2.

Besides Sunset Hills, the cities who joined the lawsuit are Olivette, Rock Hill, Breckenridge Hills, Creve Coeur, Richmond Heights, St. Ann, Bel-Ridge, Edmundson, Kirkwood, Florissant, Clayton, Frontenac, Webster Groves, Hazelwood and Bridgeton.

The judgment does not address the cities’ request for the county to pay their attorney fees, a motion for a temporary restraining order or the cities’ claim that the county ordinance is an unfunded mandate under the Hancock Amendment.

The county argued that it could pass countywide legislation regulating police departments because police services are a health issue, but in the lawsuit, Jones’ law firm Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe argued that the county only has the power to regulate public health if approved by voters.

In the ruling, Cohen noted that the county Department of Public Health oversees a variety of health-related services including immunizations, medical centers and restaurants, but not the county Police Department.

“There is no doubt that, at the time of the adoption of the referenced portions of the Missouri Constitution, the Missouri Statutes, and the St. Louis County Charter, the terms ‘health’ and ‘public health’ meant freedom from disease,” Cohen wrote. “Law enforcement was a separate and distinct subject.”

Associate County Counselor Mike Shuman filed the county’s motions in the case, including a motion for summary judgment that the standards are valid and enforceable, which Cohen denied.

A lawsuit from Jones’ firm, which represents most of the cities involved, was consolidated in February with a lawsuit from former Green Park City Attorney Paul Martin, who filed the first lawsuit against the standards on behalf of his client cities Olivette, Rock Hill and Breckenridge Hills.