Checks on Police Applicants Lax for Years Lapses in '80S May Be Partly to Blame for Scandals

Article excerpt

St. Louis police officers are getting indicted on corruption charges at a record rate this year. An embarrassing lapse of hiring standards that continued unnoticed for years may be partly to blame.

Key parts of background checks required before any candidate is admitted to the Police Academy were mysteriously discontinued sometime in the early 1980s, the Post-Dispatch has learned.

They weren't resumed until years later, in the late 1980s, veteran police commanders revealed last week.

Hundreds of officers were hired before the lapse was discovered, and full background checks resumed only about six or seven years ago.

Although most of those officers probably would have passed the background checks, some might not have, authorities say. Last week, police belatedly discovered that an officer indicted this month on corruption charges had a criminal record that could have disqualified him from the force.

Police Chief Clarence Harmon wouldn't discuss the lapse in background checks. He reportedly has asked internal affairs investigators to determine if any of the more than 20 officers under indictment or investigation skirted department qualifications when they were hired.

Harmon, however, did single out the "ace" system as another reason that unqualified police candidates might have slipped through the screening process.

"Ace" is police jargon for an influential politician or business person who meddles in Police Department affairs. Police officers have complained for years that they needed an "ace" to get promoted.

Harmon says he discovered the power of the "aces" just after his August 1991 swearing-in.

"I was astonished at the degree to which business and political leaders were accustomed to calling the chief to recommend that I hire, promote or transfer certain individuals," Harmon said. "And they expected it to be done."

This is the first time a sitting police chief has publicly acknowledged how "aces" have interfered with the department.

Sometimes, powerful "aces" asked Harmon to hire candidates who couldn't pass a background check. Harmon says he refused.

When an officer with influential friends wanted a promotion, Harmon says, he got 20 letters and 15 phone calls from influential people.

Harmon's response to the longtime practice of giving in to "aces" was straightforward.

"I simply stopped it," the chief says. A RASH OF SCANDALS

Inspector of Police Raymond B. Lauer, a 38-year veteran, is in charge of rooting out police corruption. He got the job just a week ago after Harmon transferred his predecessor, Lt. Col. Ronald Henderson.

Harmon kept the first of the current corruption investigations secret from Henderson, reportedly because the chief feared Henderson's relationship with one of the most powerful "aces": Senate Majority Leader J.B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis.

Of the three current corruption investigations, Lauer says, "I don't recall us ever being faced with this many challenges."

In March, two officers, including one who was a part-time bodyguard for Banks, were charged in state court with demanding $300 from a motorist. They released him only after the motorist got the cash from an automatic teller machine, authorities say.

The next month, a federal grand jury indicted the two officers on federal extortion charges.

April was a bad month for two more police bodyguards with political connections.

A full-time police bodyguard for Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and the part-time bodyguard for Comptroller Virvus Jones were reassigned to desk jobs. They were among 20 officers in trouble over allegations that police were working part-time jobs as security officers at the same times they were working for the Police Department.

Because most of the activity took place at a federally funded housing complex, the FBI was called in and is concentrating on 16 of the officers. …