South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Stenger’s proposed police standards still ensnarled in court

Appellate court judges hear oral arguments on standards
Steve Stenger
Steve Stenger

A year after the county tried to enact new countywide police standards, attorneys for the county and its cities are still arguing in court whether the law is legal.

The 14 minimum police standards championed by County Executive Steve Stenger call for uniform policies on the use of force, chases, accreditation and hiring, with a steep penalty if cities don’t comply: Stenger could disband the force, and the county could take over.

County Counselor Peter Krane and Sunset Hills City Attorney Robert E. Jones made the cases for, respectively, the county and the dozens of cities suing the county over the law in oral arguments earlier this month to a three-judge panel of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals at the Old Post Office.

The appellate judges — Robert Dowd, Angela Quigless and Lisa Van Amburg — are expected to decide in the next several months whether to uphold St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen’s May decision to throw out the standards as un-constitutional and unenforceable.

With the fragmented — and sometimes poor — nature of county cities’ policing receiving national attention during the un-rest in Ferguson, Stenger touted the standards as a way to ensure every citizen in the county has adequate police services.

Quigless was the least talkative of the judges, but Dowd and Van Amburg both referenced Ferguson as a potential justification for the idea of implementing minimum standards, though they both took issue with other aspects of the county law.

Typically, the county cannot enact countywide legislation unless specifically authorized to do so by the Legislature.

In his ruling, Cohen declared the police standards were “illegal and unconstitutional,” in violation of both the state Con-stitution and county Charter.

The appellate judges will weigh the merits of the case “de novo,” or from the beginning, which means they will review all the issues in the case again and do not necessarily have to concur with Cohen’s judgement.

Stenger proceeded with the standards after Krane made the call that minimum policing is a public-health issue, based on supportive testimony from county Department of Public Health Director Faisal Khan and former St. Louis police Chief Dan Isom.

Krane has not necessarily taken a broad view of the public-health clause. Earlier, he ruled that a minimum wage is not a public health issue, so the County Council could not consider legislation to raise the county’s base wage.

In this case, Krane says the testimony from experts made the difference in whether key aspects of policing fall into the realm of public health. Testimony to the council from Isom focused on how use-of-force and pursuit policies can positively impact public health, and Khan focused on the impact police departments can have on those with mental illness. Both supported the standards as necessary.

Jones, the former mayor of Ballwin, has taken the lead in presenting the cities’ arguments against what he calls the “police takeover bill.” Whether policing counts as public health was one of many lines of attack he took against the standards on behalf of Sunset Hills and the other cities making up the lawsuit, which are mostly represented by his law firm Curtis Heinz Garrett & O’Keefe.

The county has no right to dictate rules on law enforcement to cities, Jones argued.

If the county wanted to legally implement the standards, it should have sent them to voters to consider or urged the Legislature to change state law to allow the county to take charge, he said.

“The terms ‘public health’ and ‘health, safety and welfare’ are not synonymous, even though the county would have you believe that,” Jones said.

The limited public health clause also does not allow the county to circumvent the state Constitution, he added.

Krane had barely begun his slated 15-minute oral argument when Dowd and the other judges began peppering him with questions. They asked him so many questions that they allowed him to go six minutes over his time and granted Jones the same amount of time to respond.

In his ruling, Cohen agreed with Jones’ argument against the county’s public-health justification for the law, disagreeing with the county on nearly every legal aspect.

A skeptical Dowd extensively questioned Krane on the same issue.

“If we agree with your theory, could the Police Department take over the health department?” Dowd asked the county counselor. “Because the Police Depart-ment, under your argument, is in charge of health issues, they could run the health department?”

“No, the police can’t take on the health department, because the police can only operate as a police department,” Krane replied.

“But it does involve the health of the citizens, which does involve the policing authority, right?” Dowd asked.

“The health of the citizens gives us the authority, but beyond that, you’re still subject to reasonable restrictions on the operation of the county departments,” Krane said.

Many county public health initiatives, including tobacco sales and prescription-drug monitoring, fall directly under health, but not policing, he added.

But Dowd didn’t seem to buy Krane’s line of thinking on the public-health provision.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re all about police standards — there was reference to the Ferguson situation,” Dowd said. “But I just have some trouble kind of agreeing with your analysis as to what is public health — and that stretches into whether public health and public safety are the same thing.”

If Stenger deems that a city is not complying and a commission agrees with him, the mayor, aldermen, police chief and other officials from the city could be jailed and fined $1,000 a day until the city comes into compliance, or the county could take over policing in that city, according to the law.

Jones has called that aspect of the law “draconian,” and Van Amburg signaled that she might agree.

“I’m not saying that this is the case, but what if this court found some aspects of the ordinance OK and some not OK? Like the enforcement part?” she asked Krane.

“I think you can suggest that the public health authority of the county extends to the mandate of the particular standards because they tend to enhance the public health, but suggest that the enforcement mechanisms are maybe over broad,” Krane agreed.

The judges extensively questioned both Krane and Jones on the language of the Constitution and Charter and the standards themselves, with a decision appearing to hinge on how the judges interpret key phrases in texts written decades ago.

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