Thursday, August 7, 2008
St. Louis Towing Controversy Reveals A "Civil War Relic" Of A Law
Abusive and predatory towing is a subject fraught with emotion, and when a public scandal involving the topic happens--look out! The conflict and controversy might spill over into other areas of politics which seem almost unrelated.
This was the case in St. Louis, where the chief of police has already resigned in a big, tangled mess involving vehicles seized, towed, and ultimately sold...some of which the police chief's daughter got at below-wholesale prices...
Now, according to this article, the scandal has exposed the pitfalls of an archaic law dating back to the Civil War era, which basically gives the local Board of Aldermen very little power over the appointment of a city police chief. Instead, the police chief answers to a board of commissioners who are appointed mostly by the state's governor. (The city mayor is automatically a member of the board, as well)
Under this arrangement, the police chief isn't even required to show up for an investigative hearing if the Board of Aldermen decided to have one. (Which seems quite an unlikely prospect)
Why such an unusual arrangement? The answer, according to reporter Jake Wagman, is something I find quite fascinating. Just before the Civil War, secessionists in the legislature took over the reins on the St. Louis chief of police to keep Union supporters in St. Louis from getting access to the armory.
Further, according to Wagman, there is only one board like this anywhere else in the country. It's in Kansas City, Missouri. (Yes, I find it maddening there is a place called Kansas City in MISSOURI. Any American schoolchild who studies our nation's geography probably feels the same way, at least once. The existence of Kansas City, MISSOURI is an abomination, but changing the name would be worse than the current situation)
So apparently there have been moves to reform the old law, and put control back in local hands, but between the fact the locals haven't always made themselves look very good (Wagman mentions the struggling school system and controversies in the fire department) and the fact it gives the governor a lot of power--and what politician wants to give THAT up?--things have not changed since, good grief, ABRAHAM LINCOLN was in office.
Though Chief Mokwa wasn't all bad--the article talks about his many strengths, including responsiveness to cleaning up "drug corners," something I'd love to see happen in my own area of North Minneapolis--the rules governing who can become Chief of Police in St. Louis require an appointment from within the department.
And that's unfortunate, because as any student of public policy can tell you (and I count myself among them) a rather standard move in these cases is to appoint a politically-untainted outsider to clean things up in the troubled department and thus reassure the public that reform really will happen. (Wagman mentions the cities of Miami and Los Angeles as places which have used this tactic)
So now we have a St. Louis police department which is (as the article) puts it "under [a] cloud of controversy" due to the towing scandal, and yet due to the "Civil War relic" appointment system, the only possible replacement must come from high-ranking officers who served under former Chief Mokwa.
What a mess.
Meanwhile, can citizens in St. Louis get their towed vehicles back any faster? Are there any attempts to reform the predatory and abusive practices which creep into non-consent towing when graft and corruption have contaminated the system?
No. Obviously not. The "Civil War relic" is a fascinating foray into obscure legalisms--a well done article, bravo--but what about the ordinary citizens of St. Louis, and how they are being treated when their vehicles get towed?