Federal authorities are now investigating police in Ferguson, Missouri, but it’s not their first visit to suburban St. Louis. There are other dysfunctional police forces near Ferguson – and part of the problem, say experts, is that there are just so many of them. St. Louis County has 58 separate departments, according to a recent tally by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, some serving towns with fewer than 900 residents.
“These are agencies that can go wrong in a hurry,” said David A. Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who specializes in policing issues. “Even if nobody is outright corrupt, you have the possibility that with nobody to really answer to, they will not do a good job of policing themselves.”
The average U.S. town has 2.4 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents, according to FBI statistics. Things are a little different in the St. Louis suburbs, however, where a patchwork of tiny towns has provided a full employment program for police.
Officers in the county’s microcities, some no larger than a tenth of a square mile, have been targets of federal charges of beatings and sex assault, state charges of murder, lawsuits alleging brutality, and public accusations of excessive ticketing. Why would a city of 574 people that covers 13 blocks, like Beverly Hills, Missouri, need 14 cops? Why would it need any, when some of the county’s other small burgs have opted instead to contract with larger neighbors or the St. Louis County Police for public safety?
Defenders point to the need for truly local protection. Asst. Police Chief Douglas Rosemann of Flordell Hills says that’s why his city of 822 people, even after the friction between police and the public three miles north in Ferguson, is starting its own 10 member force on October 1.
“One, we need police coverage and two, we have a great relationship with our citizens and our community,” he said. “If we contract with another department we may only have one officer assigned here. They’re going to drive around but they’re not going to get out of the car. We get to know our citizens.”
Harris agrees that most locals probably prefer the hometown officers. Critics, on the other hand, say that when your city covers just a dozen blocks, the reasons for fielding your own force might include money. As motorists from other towns pass through –- briefly, very briefly –- they can be issued tickets. The ticket revenues help pay for the cops (and the judges), who then issue more tickets, and so on. One town of 1,200 has aimed a speed camera at a stretch of road just five car-lengths long.
However it came about, the end result is a jumble of police departments, and pitfalls. The sheer number of ticket-writers and traffic cameras means some motorists feel fleeced. Then there is the county’s version of musical chairs, in which officers who’ve had issues while working at one department resurface at another just a few minutes away.
The following is an unscientific survey of St. Louis County’s small police departments, and their sometimes full-grown problems.
Size of town: .09 square miles
Police force: 14, which also provides services to neighboring Velda Village Hills
Cases filed in 2013: 3,250 traffic tickets, 1,085 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: Yes
Chief John Buchanan says the size of the force is crucial to the community-oriented policing Beverly Hills demands. “Our goal is to do direct patrols,” he said. “Our officers get out of the car and talk to our citizens. We try to engage our community. We think that’s very important.” In June the city announced that it would hire four officers, with starting pay $12 an hour, to bring the force back up to 14--enough to regularly have two-officer patrols.
In the past, at least one officer has come to the department after being fired from a neighboring one. Stan Lee Stanback joined the Beverly Hills department after Velda City fired him following allegations that he beat two teenagers and an adult in 2008. The Department of Justice later indicted him in that case. He was acquitted in 2013 and is no longer in law enforcement. Chief Buchanan said the town hired Stanback because he was qualified for the job, and pointed out that he was not convicted of the alleged crimes.
Size of town: .07 square miles
Police force: Dissolved in 2012
Cases filed in 2013: 1,863 traffic tickets, 122 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: Yes
The town’s eight-officer department was dissolved in 2012 after a series of scandals and fiscal issues. A jailer there pled guilty to sexual assault. In 2011, an Uplands Park officer was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of robbing and sexually assaulting prostitutes. The town was accused of letting unlicensed officers patrol. One auxiliary officer, who had a long history of arrests, hit and killed a woman during a high-speed chase. The city paid more than $3 million in a wrongful death suit. The city then contracted with a nearby town and the county for services, but reportedly has had trouble keeping up with payments.
Size of town: .11 square miles
Police force: 6 full time, 2 part time and 2 reserve
Cases filed in 2013: 1,816 traffic tickets, 1,656 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: Yes, 1 speed camera
As other municipalities talk of shuttering their police departments, Flordell Hills is about to add one. On Oct. 1, the tiny town will officially end its contract with nearby Country Club Hills, and launch its own department, which will have more than one full-time officer for every 140 residents. Asst. Police Chief Douglas Rosemann told NBC News that by having its own force, the town, which is 90 percent black, will be able to focus on serving its community, particularly its youth.
Even before starting a police department, however, Flordell Hills operated speed cameras. A local prosecutor warned the city to stop using cameras to issue tickets to motorists who were actually driving in the neighboring town. Town officials acknowledge that they have mistakenly issued tickets across city lines, but say they have dismissed those tickets.
Size of town: .41 square miles
Police force: 7
Cases filed in 2013: 5,039 traffic tickets, 2,436 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: Yes
In 2006 a Calverton Park police officer fatally shot his fiancee during a fight. Six years later Robert R. Brooks was convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He claimed he acted in self defense.
During his tenure as a police officer in Calverton Park, Brian Britton was twice sued for police brutality, in 1998 and again in 1999, according to federal court records. The department settled one case; the second was dismissed. Britton also worked off-duty as a security guard at a movie theater, where he allegedly assaulted a woman, who filed suit in 2000. That case was settled for an undisclosed amount, according to court records. Then Pine Lawn, a nearby of town, hired him as a police officer. In 2013, while working in Pine Lawn, he was again sued in federal court for excessive force. That case is ongoing and Britton disputes the claims.
Calverton Park Police Chief Vince Delia told NBC News that he has worked hard to create a postiive relationship with the community in his 3 years as chief. "We've had a very open relationship with our community and I have very minimal complaints," he said.
Delia said the town's heavy issuance of traffic tickets -- 5,039 in 2013, or more than four for every resident -- came largely from policing speed in a school zone.
"It's not a money grab like some of these municipalities," he said. "This was definitely a safety thing."
Size of town: .26 square miles
Police force: 11
Cases filed in 2013: 3,268 traffic tickets, 371 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: Came down in 2011
In the wake of the crisis in Ferguson, this nearby town of fewer than 1,400 decided to give its police force a softer, gentler makeover. New Police Chief Steve Runge told a local Fox affiliate that he is retiring the black police cars and the town’s SWAT van. “That went bye bye,” he said. “I think too much ninja attire does a disservice to law enforcement.”
In 2012, officers from three different towns -- Charlack, St. Ann and Breckenridge Hills -- allegedly kicked in the teeth of a handcuffed man. Launcelot Samuel sued, though so many towns operate in the area there was initially confusion about which town’s officers were allegedly kicking him. He also originally filed a suit that said he was attacked in Bel-Ridge -- he later had to correct it because while the incident started there, the alleged kicking took place across the street, in Charlack. The three cities settled the case in June 2013, according to court records, and it was dismissed with prejudice.
That same year, then-Police Chief Anthony Umbertino was indicted for allegedly embezzling money from the city. He also allegedly financially exploited a nonagenarian in an insurance fraud scheme. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Legal proceedings are ongoing, with hearings scheduled for October.
Size of town: .26 square miles
Police force: 9
Cases filed in 2013: 4,784 traffic tickets, 1,097 ordinance violations
Traffic cameras: 2 cameras, 20 mph speed limit for the entire town.
In an April 2014 memo obtained by local NBC affiliate KSDK, the city’s mayor ordered the police department to write more tickets, citing a recent decrease in numbers. While the mayor wrote that he wanted only "good tickets," he pushed police to write more.
“I wish to take this opportunity to remind you that the tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P.D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time,” wrote Mayor John Gwaltney.
Size of town: .35 square miles
Police force: 15-18 (as per department)
Cases filed in 2013: 3,323 traffic tickets, 427 ordinance violations
In August, a former lieutenant and a former officer of the Hillsdale police department pleaded guilty to two counts each of federal drug charges. Court documents describe how last March, Officer Raymond Stephens was in uniform and on duty when he robbed a drug courier of approximately four ounces of heroin. He later met with an associate to whom he gave the heroin in exchange for $900 cash -- $200 of that went to Lt. Parrish Swanson as per a prior agreement. The men will be sentenced in October.
In 2007, Hillsdale Sgt. Christopher Cornell was arrested for his alleged role in a drug trafficking ring. He pleaded guilty the following year to one federal count of facilitating a drug trafficking crime.
Size of town: .16 square miles
Police force: 10, plus a canine handler and 3 reserve officers
Cases filed in 2013: 4,132 traffic tickets, 1,367 ordinance violations
A Velda City police sergeant lost his job in 2011 after being arrested for allegedly choking and kidnapping his girlfriend--he was convicted of felony assault in 2013. It was not the officer’s first scandal. In 2007 he was fired from the force of nearby St. George’s after threatening a driver during the course of an arrest. He was then hired in Velda City.
In 2008, a Velda City officer was fired after he allegedly beat two teenagers in a parking lot. He was later hired by the nearby Beverly Hills department. In 2013, he was acquitted of federal charges in the 2008 assault.
Two members of the Velda City police force were indicted in 2006 for assaulting a man jailed at the nearby Northwoods Police Department. According to disciplinary documents and Department of Justice press releases, a police officer and a detective went to Northwoods after receiving a call from that department’s “prisoner processor” about an inmate referred to in documents as E.H. According to the documents, the two asked that the security cameras be turned off and then entered E.H.’s cell. One man allegedly held E.H. down with his foot while the other beat him. They then allegedly lied to the FBI during an investigation into the incident. The two pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiring to violate the civil rights of a jailed man.
In 2006, a Velda City reserve officer was federally indicted for sexually assaulting a woman during the course of a traffic stop. Joe Ernest Phillips pleaded guilty to violating the woman’s civil rights in 2009, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
NBC News did not receive responses to requests for comment from officials in Velda City, Hillsdale, Edmundson, Charlack, and Uplands Park.