Why St. Louis Can’t Get Rid Of Its Bad Cops

Troublesome cops often transfer to another of the area's 60+ departments rather than suffer departmental consequences, saving cash-strapped police departments training dollars in the process

Police arrest a demonstrator outside the police station Ferguson. — Getty Images
Sep 15, 2015 at 8:52 AM ET

Cops with serious disciplinary issues can easily find a new job policing in St. Louis and its surrounding areas. That’s thanks to a phenomenon in the local law enforcement community known as the “muni shuffle,” one of several problems mentioned in a report released Monday aimed at addressing racial inequalities in and around Ferguson, MO. The area became an epicenter of U.S. racial unrest after a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man in August of 2014.

In one section of the 198-page “Forward Through Ferguson” report, the authors highlight how officers with disciplinary issues often move from one of the region’s 60 law enforcement agencies to another with minimal background checks—a.k.a., the “muni shuffle.”

“For example, an officer who is fired for disciplinary or performance issues in one department may be swiftly rehired by a neighboring department, because it may be costlier to recruit and train new officers than to hire an experienced officer with a history of performance issues,” the report notes. “Hiring officers who have been fired for disciplinary or performance issues in other departments can compromise the quality of policing in the region.”

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The report cites an April study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum that also looked at improving law enforcement in the St. Louis area. That study described the “muni shuffle” as “a two-step process in which 1) a police department separates a problem officer before completing a formal disciplinary proceeding that might cost the officer his or her state-issued police certificate; and then 2) another department, eager to find an already trained and certified officer at a low cost, hires the officer without fully investigating his or her background.”

The department—not the recruit—generally is on the hook for training costs for new recruits, which can run to several thousand dollars. It’s unclear exactly how much it costs per recruit In St. Louis County; its website only lists the $650 the recruit is required to pay for things like uniforms and a drug test. But, according to an August 2015 article in Police Chief Magazine it generally costs anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for a law enforcement agency to send a recruit to the academy.

“County, regional, and state academies spend about $11,200 per trainee, and college, university, or technical school academies spend about $4,600 per trainee,” the report notes. “On the other hand, city or municipal academies reportedly spend about $36,200 per trainee.

As police budgets shrink, filling an opening on the force with a new recruit often isn’t economically feasible and forces agencies to figure out ways to cut costs—like ignoring an officer’s disciplinary issues to avoid having to pay to send a recruit to the academy.

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In 2003, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a two-part investigative series that looked at more than a dozen St. Louis-area police officers who benefited from the “muni shuffle.” One of the officers mentioned in the report was Marvin Shannon, who worked for at least eight different St. Louis-area law enforcement agencies over the course of his 19-year career in law enforcement despite multiple suspensions and criminal charges. Shannon was once suspended after he injured two kids by firing a shotgun in a crowded parking lot. In another, he was accused of stealing money seized as evidence. In 2002 that he was finally fired from a police department when he was charged with assault for reportedly cutting a middle school student at Riverview Gardens Middle School with a pocket knife. At the time, he was on felony probation for failing to pay child support in 1999.

The “muni shuffle” is so common amongst St. Louis’ law enforcement agencies that “nearly every constituency we met with used the phrase at least once in our discussion,” the Police Executive Research Forum study notes. The study quotes a municipal leader as stating, “When these guys do something bad and they get fired from one of the better departments, they get hired somewhere else, making less money. The citizens in these communities deserve better services than what they’re getting.” The study also cites the conclusion of a participant in a focus group addressing the issue: “We need to establish disincentives for departments who hire these guys.”