POLITICS
10/02/2015 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2016

St. Louis County Police Were SWAT-Obsessed Long Before Ferguson

The agency, criticized for its response to Ferguson protests, puts too much emphasis on tactical approach, experts find.

WASHINGTON -- The St. Louis County Police Department, which came under heavy criticism for what some called a “militarized” response to protests in Ferguson last year, is obsessed with its SWAT team and places too much emphasis on tactical skills over community policing, according to an independent outside review.

The review by the Police Foundation, conducted on behalf of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, found problems in the recruitment process which hurt diversity in the agency, failures in their training process and a lack of investment in community policing strategies.

The 182-page report also finds a “pattern of light discipline in investigations involving ethical failings and untruthfulness” in the St. Louis County Police Department’s disciplinary process, and finds that the reputation of the police department was hurt by the actions of the dozens of small police departments in St. Louis County.

Department employees told members of the independent assessment team analyzing the St. Louis County Police Department that those who aren’t “TAC/SWAT guys” are less likely to be promoted. The numbers back that up: While just 6.8 percent of commissioned officers had experience with the SWAT team, over 25 percent of those who were promoted had TAC/SWAT experience.

COPS Director Ronald Davis told reporters on Friday that the department also needed a “much more in-depth assessment” of the racial disparities in their vehicle stop statistics. He added that the St. Louis County Police Department was starting on a “very solid foundation” to build upon by implementing the recommended changes, and that it could become a “national model.”

St. Louis County Police Department relies too heavily on tactical responses, according to an independent review.
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
St. Louis County Police Department relies too heavily on tactical responses, according to an independent review.

The review was part of a “collaborative reform” process initiated after the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent police response last year. Unlike an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division -- such as the probe of the Ferguson Police Department -- a review by DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services is intended to be more cooperative and less adversarial, and does not come with the threat of litigation.

But there are already indications that St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar wasn’t too happy with the findings of the report, as he said last month there were parts of it the department "disagreed with and strongly disagreed with.”

Members of the review team said in their report that while tactical experience is a beneficial component of a leadership team, “an overrepresentation of tactical experience in leadership may lead to an overreliance on tactical responses when more creative solutions are appropriate.”

The St. Louis County Police Department, they found, “is an agency that prides itself on an efficient response to calls for service and tactical incidents” and “recognizes those who excel in tactical proficiency and experience as leaders.” 

St. Louis County Police Department relies too heavily on tactical responses, according to an independent review.
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
St. Louis County Police Department relies too heavily on tactical responses, according to an independent review.

While the review found that the St. Louis County Police Department was “particularly proficient in the area of tactical operations,” it found that it “lacks the training, leadership and culture necessary to truly engender community policing, and to build and sustain trusting relationships with the community.”

The department, the report found, “does not have policies that ensure that they always exhaust other deescalation options before using tactical responses to disorder and protests.” Investigators found that the department placed “more value on technical and tactical proficiency than on investments in community policing such as community engagement and problem solving.”

Placing value on tactical experience is “necessary” and “not inherently negative,” the review found, but it does “influence the culture to be more responsive than proactive.”

A separate “after-action” report found major problems with the way police responded to protests in Ferguson in August 2014. Policing experts found that the way officers responded to demonstrations in a provocative and intimidating manner often fueled unrest.

Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington, Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis.

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Disclosure: One of the authors of this story, Ryan J. Reilly, was arrested by the St. Louis County Police Department during a peaceful daytime demonstration in Ferguson last August. 

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