DOJ Slams St. Louis County Cops on Community Relations


A federal assessment of the St. Louis County Police Department prompted by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014 found that the department “lacks the training, leadership, and culture necessary to truly engender community policing and to build and sustain trusting relationships with the community.”

That was a major conclusion of a report issued today by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) after a lengthy review by the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies police issues.

Brown was shot by an officer in the municipality of Ferguson, but the St. Louis County department is the major law enforcement agency in the county in which Ferguson is located and handles much of the policing throughout the area. The COPS report made 50 findings and 109 recommendations for changes in St. Louis County police policies and procedures.

The report came as part of a “collaborative review” process requested by the county in place of an investigation by the main Justice Department of possible civil-rights violations.

COPS director Ronald Davis expressed the hope that if St. Louis County follows the recommendations, it could become a national model for police-community relations. His agency will work with St. Louis County over the next year and half on implementing the report.

COPS said the St. Louis County police “should take a leadership role in the development of fair and impartial policing practices countywide. This could be accomplished in many ways including education, training, advising, and taking a public stand against agencies that have a perceived or proven unethical culture of abusing the community.”

Today’s report said that the St. Louis County Police Department “does not represent the diversity of the population it serves.” It said that blacks are “significantly underrepresented” in the ranks of police officer and police sergeant and “moderately” underrepresented in the ranks of lieutenant and captain.

COPS said the department should “develop a strategic plan for officer recruitment, focused on race and gender diversity, to include attention to recruiting, promotion, and retention of minorities and women.”

Among other major findings:

  • St. Louis County officers are not trained sufficiently in community engagement, diversity, and community policing.
  • Officer training doesn’t “sufficiently use experts in the area of cultural diversity.”
  • The county needs to “strengthen the policies, practices, training, and response for handling protests and mass demonstrations.”
  • The department should “provide training based on best practices for crowd management issues, including the psychology of crowds, to improve frontline supervisors' and officers' decision making.”
  • Noting that after the Brown shooting, the St. Louis County police “had difficulty anticipating the extent of concern from communities it does not usually police and therefore did not properly plan for potential resulting protests,” the COPS report said “officers reacted to problems instead of taking a proactive approach to preventing them.”
  • The report recommends that St. Louis County “should use social media to engage the community and protesters before, during, and after events to disseminate accurate information and correct erroneous information.”
  • St. Louis County “does not have policies that ensure that they always exhaust other deescalation options before using tactical responses to disorder and protests.”
  • The police department should “improve the process quality for vehicle stops, searches, and arrests to prohibit racial profiling.” The report said current police policy on citizen citizen contacts and traffic stop information is outdated. “The policy needs to be modified to reflect current law enforcement practices that provide guidance for avoiding biased policing,” the report says.
  • The county police do not “thoroughly investigate the use of deadly force in all situations,” particularly when a police shooting causes no injury or the officer is not a victim.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar had requested the review that resulted in today’s report. COPS director Davis said that he applauded Belmar’s “leadership in making the decision to pursue collaborative reform.”

He added: “It takes a certain level of courage and a high level of commitment to expose your agency to such a comprehensive review, especially knowing that any and all shortcomings identified will be made public.

“But it is this type of review that ensures we learn from both our successes and setbacks as we continually improve our operations.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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