Court Nixes Post-Ferguson Police Ordinance

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(CN) – Public safety is not the same as public health, a Missouri appeals court ruled Tuesday, vacating a St. Louis County ordinance to improve police accountability after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

In December 2015, following Brown’s Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting that exposed the deep distrust between law enforcement and citizens, St. Louis County adopted an ordinance applying minimum police standards to cities wholly or partly located in the county.

The ordinance explicitly states that there is an “inherent inequality of services” between different police departments in the county, and the law intends to ensure equal access to “consistent, quality public health and safety” and “reinforce trust between law enforcement and the community.”

It imposes standards for hiring and firing police officers, training and police accountability, and provides for the potential takeover of police services in a city that does not abide by the standards.

The county issued the ordinance under its constitutional authority to enhance the public health, safety and welfare of the people of St. Louis County.

But the city of Olivette and others sued in St. Louis County Circuit Court, arguing the county has no power to impose regulations on their police departments.

A state judge agreed, and the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Eastern District upheld that ruling Tuesday.

At the outset, the appeals panel declined to “deem the county’s opinion about the quality of the standards in the city police departments in St. Louis County to be a fact of common knowledge appropriate for judicial notice.”

Judge Robert Dowd Jr. said the court was “aware of the issues that have come to light in the aftermath of events in Ferguson,” and acknowledged the U.S. Justice Department’s findings of inconsistent standards, racial bias, and prioritization of budget needs over public safety needs in the Ferguson Police Department.

But “however real, important and urgent the need might be, the county can only legislate if it has the authority to do so,” Dowd wrote in the opinion.

The three-judge panel ruled that the county’s authority to regulate public health does not give it the authority to regulate public safety.

“The ordinance in this case, authorizing the issuance of minimum police standards, has nothing to do with the prevention of any disease,” Dowd said.

Out of context, any legislation designed to improve government services could be said to be in the interest of public health, the 15-page opinion states, but the St. Louis County Department of Health does not handle law enforcement matters or rules regarding fireworks safety, elevator inspections, or firearms training.

“By creating different departments to address ‘public safety’ and ‘public health,’ the legislature has indicated that it considers these two different and distinct areas of government authority. In fact, throughout the revised statutes, the legislature has used these terms in a way that demonstrates they are distinct, such as the phrase ‘public health, safety and welfare,’” Dowd said. “We must presume the legislature did not intend, therefore, for these phrases to be synonymous.”