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Mo. bill would make it harder to fire police chiefs

The Missouri Police Chiefs Association convinced the state Legislature last month to make it more difficult for cities to dismiss their chiefs

By Mark Schlinkmann
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Tired of getting caught in political cross-fire, police chiefs are seeking job protection.

The Missouri Police Chiefs Association convinced the state Legislature last month to make it more difficult for cities to dismiss their chiefs.

But the Missouri Municipal League, which represents many chiefs' employers, is pushing back and wants Gov. Jay Nixon to veto the measure. Under the bill, police chiefs could be ousted only for insubordination, committing a felony, violating a written city policy and a few other specified reasons. Moreover, dismissal would require a two-thirds majority vote of a city's governing board.

Currently, "they can be simply removed from their position without being given a reason or cause," said Sheldon Lineback, the chiefs association's executive director.

A key supporter of the bill -- Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt, a former Glendale alderman -- added that it would keep chiefs from getting "caught in these political wars" between factions fighting for control of city councils.

However, Richard Sheets, deputy director of the municipal league, complained that the measure would require police chiefs to be treated differently than a city's other department heads.

He said that all directors, including chiefs, "are part of a management team." But he said the bill would prevent mayors and councils from making a change at chief because they decide "they need someone with different skills."

That's not among the reasons for dismissal specified in the bill.
Sheets also said the bill would in effect alter the governing set-up in cities in which the police chief is hired by a city manager.

Another critic -- Democratic Rep. Jill Schupp, a former Creve Coeur councilwoman -- said councils should be free to act "if they feel there are reasons to dismiss."

Lineback said chiefs should have some independence because of their law enforcement role.

One chief recently fired was Rickey Collins of Pine Lawn, who was ousted late last month. Collins declined to comment on the state bill except to point out that it wouldn't be retroactive.

Also refusing to comment was Mayor Sylvester Caldwell.

Collins had said previously that aldermen voted 5-3 to oust him. That margin would have fallen short of the two-thirds majority required by the pending state bill.

Lineback, in explaining the need to spell out dismissal procedures, cited previous controversies over the ouster of an O'Fallon, Mo., chief in 2005 and the attempted dismissal of an Overland chief in 2006.

However, he said the association's push for the bill had nothing to do with the resignation last year as St. Charles chief by the association's current president, Dennis Corley. Lineback said the legislation had been discussed previously.

Corley and Mayor Sally Faith signed an agreement last year that said it was "in their respective best interests to discontinue" their employment relationship.

Corley, who was hired as chief in 2007 by a previous mayor, left after Faith and the city human resources office looked into complaints filed by members of the city's police officers association.

Corley now is police chief for the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis. He has declined to comment on his departure from St. Charles.

Under the pending state bill, a city board would have to give a chief at least 10 days' notice that his removal was being considered at an upcoming meeting, along with reasons.

The chief would be allowed to state his case at the meeting and present witnesses and evidence.

Among other reasons allowed by the bill for dismissal:

— Inability to perform competently as a result of a mental condition, including alcohol or substance abuse.

— Acting with "a reckless disregard" for the safety of the public or another law enforcement officer.

— Acting "for the sole purpose of furthering his or her self-interest" or in a manner "inconsistent" with the interests of the governing body or the public.

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart and a former Arnold police officer, said he didn't oppose giving chiefs due process protection. But he said he voted against the bill because it didn't also write into state law similar rights for rank-and-file officers. He said some cities had "the appearance of due process" for officers, but he contended that in most places it amounted to a "rubber stamp" for management.

Roorda is business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which didn't take a position on the bill.

The measure doesn't apply to the more than 30 elected police chiefs and city marshals across Missouri or to elected county sheriffs.

Nixon's office didn't comment on the bill.

Copyright 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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