Collaborative Solutions Key to Restoring Trust in the Justice System

by Joe Reagan | Jul 09, 2015

This afternoon, Governor Nixon signed Senate Bill 5 into law. Missouri Senator Eric Schmitt worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle to craft a law that ensures our municipal courts can once again be seen as centers of justice rather than sources of revenue.  Now, we must turn our attention to new solutions in policing as we work together to restore trust in our justice system.

Being and feeling safe in our homes, businesses, and communities is a fundamental right of all Americans, regardless of their race, ethnicity, where they live or how much money they make.  Being free from fear of crime and violence is also a foundation of a prosperous community. All law-abiding citizens must know that they can trust that their police departments are working to keep them safe, and that police officers and their departments meet the highest professional crime fighting standards. Police officers must also be able to trust in the support of the community they serve. 

The events in Ferguson and the rest of our region after last August 9th revealed that in too many of our neighborhoods, that trust is broken.  It revealed that too many police departments in our region don’t even come close to meeting national standards. Some people in our region get extraordinary police protection, while others get none at all. Some of us can count on our police departments to protect our families, while others are themselves the targets of their own police forces as part of a revenue-producing machine.  

Our region has thousands of hard-working, dedicated police officers that selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Some of our police departments can be included among the best in the country. Unfortunately, we also have people in departments that are not up to the task of keeping their communities safe; officers who spend more time writing traffic tickets than investigating crime and arresting criminals. We have some police forces that to their own citizens feel more like an occupying army than a partner against crime. In some places, decades-old racial divisions have simmered just below the surface, unaddressed, often unacknowledged. 

That must change. It is changing.  

In St. Louis County: County Executive Steve Stenger is leading on reforms and setting the right policy direction for policing in St Louis County. He's endorsed plans for department consolidations and is advancing new standards for policing. 

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar recently penned an op-ed  proposing a new model of policing for our region based on a large, stable police department that would focus on public safety and vibrant communities.  The Chief was starkly critical of the small, unaccredited police departments in much of our region.  He was equally clear that the County Police are ready to step up and regain the public’s trust throughout St. Louis County. 

In the city of St Louis: Mayor Francis Slay, who led the effort to achieve local control of the city police department in 2013, worked with the Board of Aldermen this year to create a new Civilian Oversight Board.

St. Louis City Police Chief Sam Dotson recognized the fundamental issue of mistrust in a blog post he wrote on New Year’s Day: “We know what is broken and what must be fixed: it's the trust. We…must work to create a society in which the feeling of safety and security is restored to those who've lost it.” Chief Dotson is matching his words with action. He has put in place a number of reforms including adopting the U.S. Justice Department’s standards on racial profiling, and creating a unit whose sole job is to work to build stronger bonds with all residents in the City. 

There's more to do and ideas for action are emerging from many sources.  A steady series of reports over the last few months -- from the Department of Justice, Better Together, and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) -- have closely examined our policing practices and have identified real solutions that will repair the broken trust felt in some communities.

PERF, working with Better Together, proposed 14 recommendations to improve public safety outcomes, including straightforward measures such as cross-deputizing City and County police officers, the establishment of regional hiring, training and use-of-force standards, and more complex solutions such as department mergers.  

St. Louis is not unique. As we have seen since August 9th, these are national issues. But, nowhere else in America are these challenges being addressed like they are in St. Louis. We are encouraged to see law enforcement, civic leaders and elected officials recognizing the challenges we face and stepping up to the difficult work of reform. Engaging in honest public dialogue, working collaboratively with the broader community to understand justifiable grievances, and proposing solutions that result in systemic change are the keys to restoring trust.  The St. Louis Regional Chamber is committed to being part of this process.  It is good for business. It will help our community prosper.  We hope you will join us.