Over the past few days I’ve seen a lot of confusion about the geography and municipal structure of Ferguson and St. Louis, so I just want to offer a quick rundown of the region and make some distinctions that often elude not only national media but frankly many St. Louis residents as well. This isn’t just me being pedantic; if you want a full understanding of the insanity going on in Ferguson this week, you need to understand the deep roots of St. Louis’ regional dysfunction.
The St. Louis metro area has a strange, flukish governmental framework that dates back to 1876, when St. Louis City made the monumentally shortsighted decision to separate itself from surrounding St. Louis County. When the city needed to expand westward in the ensuing decades, it had nowhere to go, and gradually the region’s political and economic center of gravity shifted to the County. Today, the City and the County cooperate on some regional bodies but municipal codes, public finances, and most services (police, fire, courts, public works) are divided along the City-County line.
But this is only half of the reason why “St. Louis”—i.e., the metro area—is so dysfunctional. The other is that St. Louis County is itself further balkanized into no less than 91 independent municipalities, 74 of which maintain their own municipal police departments—most of which, like Ferguson’s, are small and suffer from a lack of oversight. These 74 separate departments, plus the much larger St. Louis County Police Department, serve a relatively small suburban area that—even in other fragmented metro areas like Dallas-Ft. Worth—would (and should) be served by no more than three or four departments.
When you understand this insane fragmentation, and understand that the police response in Ferguson is being “coordinated” by St. Louis County Police in conjunction with dozens of other smaller independent municipal departments, tweets like these begin to make more sense:
Re: rubber bullets in #ferguson protests…unclear if other depts used them; but St. Louis Co. police says they didn’t.— joelcurrier (@joelcurrier)August 12, 2014
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce)August 14, 2014
Ferguson chief told me his staff didn’t know about Wes and Aryan’s arrest, ops are being run by St. Louis County tonight.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce)August 14, 2014
Question for whoever is in charge of this police situation right now: Who are you, and what is your plan, exactly? #Ferguson— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce)August 14, 2014
Importantly, this does not downplay the very real racial component at play in the St. Louis County Police Department’s unbelievably heavy-handed response to the protests in Ferguson—in fact, the region’s racial tensions and its governmental fragmentation are inextricably linked to one another, since efforts at reunification or consolidation often run into opposition from white suburbs that want to remain separate from predominantly black municipalities like Ferguson.