Hartmann: St. Louis County’s Soap Opera Police Board Needs to Call 911 | Hartmann | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events
The best defense for beleaguered St. Louis County Sheriff Mary Barton is that she had nothing to do with the hiring of Sheriff Mary Barton.
Barton’s tenure, which has been in service for a little over ten months, can be described as a not-for-profit, dirty-lazy experience for everyone involved. But it’s the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners – not Barton – that has the strange decision to miscast her in a role for which she is obviously so ill-suited.
Last spring, the board inexplicably passed over an apparently more qualified candidate in Lieutenant Colonel Troy Doyle, who is widely viewed within the department (and outside) as the likely successor to retired chief Jon Belmar. Doyle is suing the county for racial discrimination for cursing a white candidate with less rank and experience in Barton.
Most of the ramifications of the police department’s strange move ended up on County Executive Sam Page, whose recorded voice announced the message – courtesy of Doyle’s attorney Jerry Dobson – to Doyle, “Police will do what I tell him” by she hired him. Page could only have wished he’d dictated, “the media will do what I say” if he hadn’t aired the tape. Unfortunately, the tape aired for him.
For the members of the Police Department, advertising was not such a bad break at the time because it diverted attention from their own dubious actions. Now, however, with the sudden resignation of its chairman, former Judge William Ray Price Jr., midway through his three-year tenure, some spotlight could return to the unacceptably withdrawn board.
Not only was Price appointed by Page, but it appears he was offered a starring role in Doyle’s lawsuit. Price and his counterpart Michelle Schwerin, a local attorney, were appointed to the board in November 2019 after meeting with Doyle at Page’s request to pre-examine his candidacy for boss.
If so, it was inappropriate for Page to arrange such a private meeting as well as for the two of them to attend. Aside from the apparent injustice to other lead candidates, this suggests a profound lack of understanding – or perhaps acceptance – of the public mission and public accountability of the police force. It is one thing to arrange meetings with business leaders or other allies. It is quite a different matter to arrange them with new members of the official board of directors.
Herein lies the problem, which is much greater than Barton’s accomplishment or lack thereof. At a time when there is no greater need than to regain public trust and make police behavior accountable, the board is caught collectively in a loop of secrecy and distraction.
The operative word is “collective” as there is no evidence that the members of the Police Headquarters are individually anything but qualified and honorable citizens who devote their time to the common good. But as anyone who understands the dynamics of boards of directors can relate to, it’s not uncommon for the whole to be way below the sum of its parts.
The good intentions of the commissioners are not in question, but when it comes to transparency and accountability, not even the smartest police officer can detect. The most recent example came from Price himself about a month ago in a meeting with KSDK star reporter Christine Byers about why the Board inexplicably granted Barton a $ 12,000 raise in just seven months in a tumultuous tenure.
“Price was unwilling to discuss the board’s reasons for a raise for Barton with a reporter or comment on the board’s opinion on her performance as boss,” Byers reported. “‘This is staff and I am not at liberty to discuss it publicly and we cannot comment on that. Thank you very much,’ Price said before turning to a reporter.”
That’s right: Price hung up because Byers asked an obvious and correct question. In short, that tells you everything you need to know about this man’s arrogance and, more broadly, a board of directors to choose him as its chairman.
No, the reasons for hiring a police chief are not “staff” and are kind of taboo to the public. There are also no decisions to increase that person a whopping 8 percent less than a year after being hired, in stark contrast to the 2-3 percent increases (or none at all) granted to members of their department.
In case the good judge forgot, the salaries of police officers, as well as those of all county employees, are public knowledge, and decisions about increases are largely a matter for the public. Just as the people of St. Louis County are entitled to a better explanation than “personal reasons” if the police department chairman abruptly resigns halfway through his tenure without giving a reason.
Oh, and by the way, multiple sources tell us that Price’s decision to step down was closely tied to the department’s ongoing soap opera drama about “staff” issues that the public is not aware of. We will contact you in this case.
At least give the police authority credit for the consistency. This is in line with the decision to outsource accountability to the business community, particularly Centene, a company that is by far Page’s largest campaign contributor. It’s also a company that hired former county police chief Jon Belmar, who is widely known in police circles for having had a company of no admiration with Doyle, as chief of security.
What could go wrong with that?
Perhaps the remaining board members should take to heart the key findings of the report that Teneo Group’s private advisors had presented to the county on business interests: “With respect to immediate improvement opportunities, Teneo Risk identified three key findings:
1. The department needs to improve its crime-fighting methods and coordinate better with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to collectively reduce violent crime.
2. There is a racial divide among the staff in the department. This gap, while deeply troubling, offers the boss an opportunity to bring about positive organizational and cultural change.
3. The department needs to enhance its commitment to the community it serves, the government agencies it works with, its own staff, and the many and varied media that portray what the department does on a daily basis 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 stunning statement that there was no systemic racism in the county police force. Even leaving aside the detail that she was empirically wrong – and that her testimony was at the height of racial tension and protests against the murder of George Floyd – Barton’s confident whistle on an empty web was breathtaking.
Rather than face the casual mistake, Barton hid largely from the media, pretty much the opposite of “community engagement” to borrow Teneo’s phrase. But in order to live up to it, it follows the lead of the commissioners who have appointed it in this regard.
Barton achieved the nigh on impossible by making matters worse in an awkward, belated interview after shipping in St. Louis last week in which she acknowledged the community was not receptive as she uttered her never-withdrawn initial gaffe.
Even so, Barton isn’t the real problem in the long run. Much more consistently, St. Louis County has a runaway group of police commissioners who don’t know or care who’s boss. It’s not Page or his administration. It’s not the business world. It’s the people.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Nine Network on Thursdays at 7 p.m. and on KTRS (550 p.m.) Monday through Friday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. in Donnybrook.