Local control: 5 easy questions; no easy answers
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: I hate redundancy. Phrases like "9 a.m. in the morning" or "a fall day in October" scrape fingernails across the chalkboard of my mind. I am a life-long devotee of trenchant reasoning -- say it once, say it clearly and move on.
Certain issues, however, demand repetition by virtue of their stubborn resilience. On the national level, abortion is one such example. No amount of debate, legislation or case law is sufficient to lay the matter to rest. Nobody changes anybody's opinion, and "discussion" consists of endless recapitulation of the same hackneyed arguments.
Locally, who should run the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has emerged as a similar source of enduring controversy. The powers that be at City Hall are dead-set and determined to wrest control from the independent board that currently administers it. The cops are steadfastly opposed.
The issue has been argued at length but it demands further discussion because it is still being discussed. Redundantly speaking, it's something of a paradoxical conundrum.
As the reader is no doubt aware, the present administrative arrangement dates back to the Civil War when state officials with Confederate sympathies placed the police departments in St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph under control of the governor to prevent them from being used to advance the Union cause. For his part, Mayor Slay has pledged that should the state cede the department to him, he will not use it to attack the Confederacy.
One presumes that the mayor was speaking in jest, but a literal reading of his words indicates that he would be willing to tolerate the dissolution of the Union and a return of slavery so long as he winds up in charge of the police. Given the fervor with which local control advocates pursue this power grab, that interpretation may not be as ridiculous as it sounds.
As a retired city cop, I have a dog in this fight. Like most of my fellows, I suspect the real source of this sudden urgency to do away with the Police Board has to do with who controls the $700 million or so in the Police Pension Fund. That money was paid into the system by decades of officer payroll contributions. Local politicians cite pension obligations as the primary cause of the budget crisis at City Hall, but profess to have no interest in this money. Many even manage to keep a straight face when doing so.
Though I oppose the takeover, I favor civil dialog. In that spirit, I pose five easy questions to the city control lobby. Answer them satisfactorily and I'll be willing to change my mind.
#1. What, specifically, do you want to change?
The usual rationale for local control is twofold: The present arrangement is an anachronism; and most other cities have their police answer to the mayor.
Admittedly, the Civil War ended 146 years ago. Then again, the U.S. Constitution took effect 76 years before that. Should we also abandon that venerable document simply because it's worked fairly well for a long time?
The "Gee, Mom, all the other mayors have their own cop shops" argument is likewise less than compelling. We may have inherited a police board by historical accident, but it has functioned to insulate law enforcement from the more pernicious influences of local politics.
What, exactly, would you change about police operations? What do you want the department to do that the present arrangement prevents it from doing? What is it currently doing that you want to stop?
How would you improve things? And please, no vague BS about "accountability." The department has an Internal Affairs Unit that does nothing but investigate complaints against cops. How many employers pay full-time wages to people whose sole responsibility is to investigate the workforce?
#2. How are you an improvement?
The Police Board consists of the mayor and four members appointed by the governor. The appointed members must be city residents and must be confirmed by the state senate before taking office. Some have complained that appointees often have no law enforcement experience, which strikes me as a valid point.
Currently, the appointed board is made up of an attorney, a chiropractor, the executive director of a sports foundation and the former chief of the St. Louis County Police. What relevant expertise do politicians bring to the table that these people lack?
#3. Does this have anything to do with favors for the well-connected?
Before they can be hired, applicants to the city force must pass a battery of tests designed to measure their intelligence as well as their psychological and physical fitness for the position. They also must successfully undergo a series of interviews and a life-time background check.
Might you not be tempted to relax these somewhat exacting standards to accommodate, say, the off-spring of a big campaign donor or any umemployable in-laws who may be living in your basements?
#4. Where'd the money go?
When the pension fund's investments were paying big bucks, actuaries granted the city an 11-year holiday from contributing to the police retirement system. Did you stewards of the public trust set aside some of this windfall in the event future contributions were needed? (Didn't think so ...) Does your spend-every-dime-we-can-find approach to fiscal management have anything to do with your present difficulties?
#5. When did you learn of the Hancock Amendment?
City Hall has just discovered that the police budget is an unfunded mandate imposed by the state in violation of the Hancock Amendment. This contention conveniently overlooks the fact that said amendment was passed in 1980 and that in every subsequent year, the mayor, the comptroller and the president of the Board of Aldermen had to approve the budget before it could take effect. How can a mandate be state-imposed if the city's top officials agree to it? If the truth is on your side, why are you distorting it?
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Those, then, are my inquiries for champions of local control. I will await their cogent replies. I will not hold my breath.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.