Hartmann: St. Louis County's Soap Opera Police Board Needs to Call 911

Mar 8, 2021 at 6:10 am
The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners' bungling doesn't get enough attention.
The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners' bungling doesn't get enough attention. THEO WELLING

The best defense for beleaguered St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton is that she had nothing to do with hiring Police Chief Mary Barton.

On the job for slightly more than ten months, Barton’s tenure can charitably be described as a no-good, dirty-rotten experience for all concerned. But it’s the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners — not Barton — that owns the curious decision to miscast her in a role for which she’s so obviously ill suited.

Last spring, the board inexplicably passed over an obviously more qualified candidate in Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, widely viewed within the department (and on the outside) as the likely successor to retiring Chief Jon Belmar. Doyle is suing the county for race discrimination over having been snubbed for a white candidate with less rank and experience in Barton.

Most of the fallout of the police board’s curious move landed upon County Executive Sam Page, whose taped voice made the news — courtesy of Doyle’s lawyer Jerry Dobson — proclaiming to Doyle “the police board will do what I tell it to do” by hiring him. Page could only have wished that he might have dictated “the media will do what I tell it do” in not airing the tape. Sadly for him, the tape aired.

For police board members the publicity wasn’t such a bad break at the time, because it deflected attention from their own dubious actions. Now, however, some spotlight might return to the unacceptably reclusive board with the sudden resignation of its chairman, former Judge William Ray Price Jr., halfway through his three-year term.

Price was not only appointed by Page, but apparently has been offered a starring role in Doyle’s lawsuit. Price and fellow Page appointee Michelle Schwerin, a local attorney, were put on the board in November 2019 after taking a meeting with Doyle — at Page’s request — to pre-screen his candidacy for chief, the lawsuit suggests.

If that’s true, it was both inappropriate for Page to arrange such a private meeting and for the two of them to take it. Aside from the obvious unfairness to other chief candidates, it suggests a fundamental lack of understanding — or perhaps acceptance — of the police board’s public mission and public accountability. Setting up meetings with business leaders or other allies is one thing; arranging them with incoming members of the official governing board is quite another.

Herein lies the problem that is much larger than Barton’s performance, or lack thereof. At a time when there’s no greater need than regaining public trust and providing a sense of accountability to the conduct of the police department, the board is collectively trapped in a loop of secrecy and deflection.

The operative word is “collectively” because there’s no evidence that, individually, the police board members are anything less than qualified and honorable good citizens giving of their time for the greater good. But as anyone who understands the dynamics of governing boards can relate, it’s not uncommon for the whole to be far less than the sum of its parts.

The good intentions of the commissioners are not in question, but if there’s any commitment to transparency and accountability, not even the shrewdest police detective could uncover it. The most recent example came from Price himself about a month ago in an encounter with Christine Byers, KSDK’s star reporter, over why the board had inexplicably given Barton a $12,000 raise just seven months into a stormy tenure.

“Price was unwilling to discuss the board’s reasons for giving Barton a raise with a reporter, or comment on the board’s opinion of her performance as chief,” Byers reported. “‘That’s personnel, and I’m not at liberty to discuss it publicly, and that’s something we can’t comment on so thank you very much,’ Price said before hanging up on a reporter.”

That’s right: Price hung up on Byers for asking an obvious and proper question. In a nutshell, that tells you all you need to know about the arrogance of this guy, and by extension, a board that would select him as his chairman.

No, the reasons behind hiring a police chief are not “personnel” and somehow off limits to the public. Nor are decisions to grant that person a whopping 8 percent raise less than a year after hiring her, in stark contrast to the 2 to 3 percent raises (or none) given to members of her department.

In case the good judge forgot, the salaries of police officers are a matter of public record, just like those of all county employees, and decisions regarding raises are very much the public’s business. Just like the people of St. Louis County are entitled to an explanation better than “personal reasons” for the chairman of its police board resigning abruptly for no stated reason halfway through his term in office.

Oh, and by the way, multiple sources are telling us that Price’s decision to resign was very related to the department’s ongoing soap-opera drama over “personnel” issues that the public doesn’t get to know about. We’ll get back to you on that one.

At least give the police board credit for consistency. This is very much in keeping with its decision to outsource accountability to the business community, and in particular Centene, a company that is far and away Page’s largest campaign contributor. It’s also a company that hired as its security chief former County Police Chief Jon Belmar, widely known in police circles to have had a mutual non-admiration society with Doyle.

What could go wrong with any of that?

Perhaps the remaining members of the board should take to heart the top-line findings of the report that the business interests had delivered to the county by the private consultants at Teneo Group: “In terms of immediate areas of opportunity for improvement, Teneo Risk has identified three major findings:

1. The department must improve its crime-fighting methods, and it must better coordinate with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to collaboratively reduce violent crime.

2. There is a racial divide among the department’s employees. While deeply troubling, this divide provides the chief with an opportunity to lead positive organizational and cultural change.

3. The department must improve its engagement with the community it serves, the government entities it works with, its own employees, and the many and varied media that portray what the department does day-to-day to serve the public.”

Of particular interest here are items 2 and 3. Of course, Barton made her infamous public debut in June by making the jaw-dropping statement that there was no systemic racism in the county police department. Even setting aside the detail that she was empirically wrong — and that her statement came at the height of racial tensions and protests over the murder of George Floyd — Barton’s self-unaware whiffing on an empty net was breathtaking.

Rather than own up to the unforced error, Barton responded by largely hiding from the media, pretty much the opposite of “community engagement,” to borrow Teneo’s phrase. But in fairness to her, she is following the lead in this regard of the commissioners who appointed her.

Barton achieved the near impossible by making matters worse in a clumsy, belated St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview last week in which she acknowledged that the community was unreceptive since she uttered her never-retracted initial gaffe.

Still, Barton isn’t the real problem, long term. Far more consequentially, St. Louis County has a runaway board of police commissioners that doesn’t know or care about who’s the boss. It isn’t Page or his administration. It isn’t the business community. It’s the people.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).