Pine Lawn Disbands Police Department
Last week, Pine Lawn, a small city in North Saint Louis County (population 3,425), disbanded its police department. Almost immediately, padlocks went on the police department’s doors. Responsibility for policing in Pine Lawn will now fall to the North County Police Cooperative, which also provides service to Vinita Park, Vinita Terrace, Wellston, and Charlack.
As we’ve discussed many times before, small municipalities in Saint Louis County (and especially North Saint Louis County) have too often relied on traffic fines to run their municipalities. Residents, the press, and the federal government have all accused cities in this region of using police to generate revenue rather than focusing solely on public safety. Since the 1990s, Missouri has capped the amount to which a city can benefit from traffic fees, but lack of enforcement meant the law (known as the Macks Creek Law) was often ignored. A prime offender was Pine Lawn, which, before events in Ferguson put a spotlight on the region, collected as much as half of its general revenue from fines.
Pine Lawn’s decision to disband its police force is just the latest domino to fall following the passage of SB 5 in the Missouri legislature last year. That piece of legislation both tightens restrictions from the old Macks Creek law and provides real teeth for that law’s enforcement. Failing to keep fines and fees below 12.5% of general revenue can now lead to disincorporation in Saint Louis County. More and more cities, and now Pine Lawn, are deciding to pool resources or contract out policing.
Combining police forces offers the prospect of saving money for a city, and it can mean better service too. Larger police forces can pay officers more and attract better talent. Their training is often more extensive. And that’s something Pine Lawn can use, as their police department has had its fair share of scandal in recent years.
Pine Lawn’s decision to turn policing over to the North County Police Cooperative, rather than Saint Louis County, may be a cause for concern. The Cooperative is very new, and is unproven as of now. However, Pine Lawn’s officials say that it was the best offer they received, and if the service does not work for them, they can end the contract in six months’ time. That flexibility—the option to get rid of an entire government department in six months if it is not functioning properly—is a situation residents in other cities can only envy.