Report finds police workload unequal across St. Louis, backs community service officers

The report recommended that St. Louis PD rearrange officer assignments to better cover understaffed areas of the city


By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis police have been understaffed in districts covering downtown and large parts of North St. Louis compared with other areas of the city, a nonprofit-funded analysis found.

The Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit focused on partnering with public safety agencies to help spur reform, commissioned a review of five years of St. Louis police workload data and presented the city with a potential model for directing more 911 calls to civilians.

In an analysis published Wednesday, the Center for Policing Equity, or CPE, recommended that St. Louis police rearrange officer assignments to create a more equal workload across the city. It also proposed the creation of a civilian position housed outside the police department, a community service officer.

Community service officers could take an estimated 18% of all calls to police, including reports of accidents and parking violations, without a police officer. Such a move, if taken up by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones' administration, would significantly expand the city's current limited use of civilian responders who show up in addition to police on some calls.

One of the report's planners, Hans Menos, vice president of CPE's triage response team, said the nonprofit partnered with St. Louis police and the Jones administration to provide its analysis and recommendations at no cost.

Menos said the CPE team quickly found that debates over officer assignments and workload were a primary concern for residents, officers and city leaders alike.

"Everyone had their own diagnosis," he said. "Some folks argued there were too many cops. Many said there's not enough, and others said there's a divide in terms of who gets policing. We believe we can use data as a lever for social change, so we wanted to get to the bottom of it."

CPE hired a consultant that specializes in reviewing police staffing, Matrix Consulting Group, to take a look at St. Louis call data from 2016 through 2020 across the department's six police districts.

The department had nine districts for decades beginning in the 1960s. Those were reduced to six under Chief Sam Dotson in 2014 with the goal of balancing workload and reducing crime. But Matrix found "significant disparities" in service levels and call volumes in the data it reviewed.

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The report found officers in District 4 and District 5 were the most understaffed. District 4 covers areas around downtown and the northeast part of the city, including Jeff-Vander-Lou, Old North St. Louis and Fairground Park. District 5 includes the Central West End area along with North St. Louis neighborhoods such as The Ville and Wells-Goodfellow.

In those districts, "The calls stack up. The women and men in the police department can't spend as much time on those calls for service as they would like to," said Rob Kenter, senior director of CPE's triage response team, at a March 29 town hall with Mayor Jones.

Matrix concluded the most overstaffed areas were District 2 and District 3, which together cover large portions of South St. Louis.

Understaffed overall

According to the report, about 40% of patrol officers' shifts should be spent on activities other than answering calls for service. This allows time for "traffic stops, building checks, business interviews, foot patrols and community engagement," or what the consultants called "proactive time."

The report found that officers in District 2 and District 3 always averaged at least 30% proactive time, while there were periods in District 4 and District 5 when officers spent virtually all their time on duty responding to calls.

Matrix also concluded that for the call volumes experienced over the past several years, the department's patrol division has been understaffed overall.

Including temporary reassignments, about 380 of the department's 1,200 officers were assigned to patrol duty, Matrix found. The consultants concluded that if calls are not reduced — for example, by diverting some to civilians — the city will need about a 15% increase in officers working patrol.

The report commended the police department's 2020 average response time of 3.7 minutes to the highest-priority calls for emergencies such as shootings, calling it an "exceptional level of performance."

In a written response to the report, the police department said it has already begun to adjust its district staffing because of Matrix's findings. But it said it could not share specifics on how patrol staff levels might have changed among districts, citing a confidential "Operations Plan."

"We agree with these conclusions in the sense that we understand the needs of citizens and the number of calls for service may differ from neighborhood to neighborhood throughout the city," the department said in a written statement. "It has also been important to analyze the types of calls for service in determining the number of officers to assign to particular areas. We continue to analyze the recommendations from the Center for Policing Equity, as well as regular analysis by our crime analyst, to most adequately deploy resources in the interest of public safety."

In recent years, some city aldermen have pushed for a reorganization of police staffing.

A 2020 bill passed by the board's Public Safety Committee recommended creating seven police districts, reducing the number of commanders to add to patrol staff and merging the city-run St. Louis Lambert Airport Police Department into the police department.

"We have too many white-shirts who do absolutely nothing," the bill's sponsor, Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, said at the time, referring to the department's top brass and complaining about the lack of officers in his North St. Louis ward.

The bill had the support of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, but it failed to advance after St. Louis police Chief John Hayden opposed the measure. He said a change in police districts would require an in-depth analysis of the workforce.

Civilian response

Menos said city leaders asked CPE to also commission an analysis on how the city could fulfill a central promise of the mayor's public safety agenda: sending "the right person" to the call.

Matrix identified 19 call categories it recommended that the police department could "partially divert" to unarmed civilians who would be known as community service officers.

Types of calls the report suggested could sometimes be handled by civilians included accidents, parking violations, illegal dumping, assisting motorists, overdoses and "cold" burglary, larceny and fraud complaints reported hours after a crime with no suspects on scene.

The report predicted that 40% to 80% of each of those call types could be sent to civilians, based on comparison data from five California police departments that use civilian responses. Those cities include Fremont and Roseville.

The consultant recommended the city launch a program with 15 community service officers.

St. Louis already has a limited Crisis Response Unit, sometimes known as Cops & Clinicians, that launched in January 2021. That unit typically pairs police officers with civilians trained to handle mental health crises and homeless issues, rather than diverting the calls from officers entirely.

Jones has said she hopes to expand the city's civilian response program to eventually include civilian-only responses to some calls.

Mayoral spokesman Nick Dunne said in a statement that the mayor is reviewing the specific recommendations in the report.

" St. Louis has already seen how successful alternative response programs like Cops & Clinicians and 911 Call Diversion reduce the burden on officers by connecting the right professional to the right call," Dunne said. "We are reviewing CPE's findings alongside the Department of Public Safety to find opportunities to make meaningful changes that help officers focus on their main job — solving violent crime."

Menos, of CPE, suggested that along with freeing up officers, the recommendation could potentially reduce use of force by limiting interactions with armed officers.

"The idea is how can St. Louis create a system of care versus a system of punishment," Menos said. "When we're sending armed people with arresting powers to every problem, we are sending a punitive response. That's because that's all we have now as an option."

The nonprofit previously published a report in September showing that from 2012 through 2019 St. Louis police officers used force against Black people at 4.3 times the rate of white people per capita in the city.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said police union leadership was reviewing the report, but added that he hoped any large changes to policing would include discussions with rank and file officers.

The Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee will hold a virtual meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the CPE report. The meeting can be viewed on the city's YouTube page. Residents can find a Zoom link for the event at www.stlouis-mo.gov/events.

(c)2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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