The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners meeting of June 10, 2020 (screenshot)

CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday approved a privately funded review of police policies announced last week by County Executive Sam Page, but not without dissent from a commissioner who called it a waste of resources.

Dr. LJ Punch, who has blasted Page for announcing the review without first consulting the board, said previous regional studies by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Ferguson Commission have already paved the way forward for reform.

“We have multiple, actionable things,” Punch said. “I cannot condone using any resource, regardless of where it comes from, for a study because it is nearly emotionally abusive, gaslighting, to ignore the multiple studies that people have worked blood, sweat and tears for in this region and act like we don’t know what we need to do.”

The review, by two nationally known former police chiefs, will be paid for by the Regional Business Council and member companies of Civic Progress, an organization of top executives from the region’s largest private sector employees.

Tom Irwin, a Centene executive who led Civic Progress for 12 years, advocated for the study before the board. A spokesman for Civic Progress on Thursday said Irwin is not being paid by the organization.

The review is the result of past conversations between local officials and business leaders about reducing violent crime, said Irwin, who last year convened a meeting to discuss city-county police cooperation with local officials.

“It’s got to stop,” Irwin said, referring to recent homicides and violent crime that have wounded or killed children. “We’ve all got to figure out what to do to try to make it better.”

Concern about public safety also voiced recently by Irwin’s boss, Centene CEO Michael Neidorff, who said the company was having difficulty recruiting people because of crime in the St. Louis region.

The chiefs will meet with community stakeholders to write recommendations they’ll deliver to the board in coming weeks, he said.

“You’re going to get some of the best practices from around the country,” he said.

Commissioners questioned the scope of the review, asking how long it would last and raising concerns that Irwin’s talk of violent crime and reforming police policies would not be enough to address root causes of crime, such as poverty.

There are “bad actors,” said Commissioner Thomasina Hassler, and “there are other folks who are desperate, and in their desperation they may do things that are illegal and create problems.”

The review would be privately paid for, Irwin emphasized, and the police department would not be obligated to follow any of the recommendations.

“If you don’t want to do it, I would appreciate knowing it now because I know the city does want to do it,” he said, referring to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s announcement in June that the city had accepted the business groups’ offer to have the former chiefs review police policies.

Whether the commissioners have the authority to stop the review was unclear Thursday. The board voted to ask the reviewers to present their findings to commissioners.

“I see no reason not to allow others to get involved in this,” said Ray Price, the board chairman.

Punch was the sole vote against the motion. The former police chiefs chosen to conduct the review are Charles H. “Chuck” Ramsey, a retired Washington and Philadelphia police chief, and Daniel Oates, former police chief in Aurora, Colorado, and Miami Beach, Florida, who now consults with Baltimore through a U.S. Justice Department program.

Page does not directly control the county police department. Under the county charter, a five-member board appointed by the county executive does. Page late last year replaced four of the five members in the wake of a $20 million verdict against the department in a workplace discrimination suit.

Wildhaber responds

On Thursday, police commissioners also heard from the police officer at the center of the lawsuit, who now heads a police unit launched Jan. 1 to foster inclusion in its ranks and better serve a diverse community.

Lt. Keith Wildhaber pushed back against criticism that the unit has been inactive during the coronavirus pandemic or recent protests, after reports in which Chief Mary Barton and Price acknowledged the unit’s two members had been assigned to other roles in the department.

“I heard some talk that Diversity and Inclusion shut down completely,” he said. “That is false.”

Wildhaber also responded to the Ethical Society of Police, which had criticized his appointment by former police chief Jon Belmar. St. Louis County last month officially recognized ESOP, a group founded in 1972 to address racial discrimination in policing.

“There are some on this department and our community who feel I can’t do this job as a white male,” he said.

Wildhaber acknowledged he had no formal training in diversity and inclusion, but had “lived experience with the desire to make sure no employee on this police department was made to feel like I did for four years.”

The unit has sought engagement from the community “to make sure that all their voices are heard,” he said. They met with ESOP three times earlier this year, as well as with other groups including Nicole Hudson, former director of the Ferguson Commission and now head of Washington University’s Academy for Diversity and Inclusion.

The unit made recommendations to supervisors for changes to recruitment, hiring and promotional efforts, as well as pay disparities, Wildhaber said. Police officers have also complained of unequal discipline by the department’s Bureau of Professional Standards, he said.

Wildhaber’s team is examining the demographic makeup of the department’s officers and their deployments, and is working on revising the department’s workforce harassment policy, which hasn’t been updated since 2003, he said.

The county department, meanwhile, does not have a stand-alone anti-discrimination policy, Wildhaber said. His unit is writing one.

“The way I envision it, you open the handbook,” he said, “and the first policy is that this department does not tolerate discrimination.” Commissioners on Thursday also heard recommendations from the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, formed in 2016 by the United Way and Washington University to address violent crime in the city and St. Louis County. The group’s recommendations include creating a civilian review board, investing in community policing and creating policies for police interactions with transgender or gender non-conforming people.

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