St. Louis has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates, and its police department struggles to keep up. Many neighborhoods hire officers through private security firms, creating disparities in how the city is policed.

The biggest private policing company in St. Louis is a who’s who of city police commanders, supervisors and lower-ranking officers.

Among the roughly 200 St. Louis police officers whose names appeared earlier this year on an internal list of officers who had sought and received approval from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to moonlight for The City’s Finest were four of the six district commanders who hold the rank of captain. The list, obtained by ProPublica through a public records request, also included two of the department’s highest-ranking officers, Maj. Ryan Cousins, who oversees the department’s murder, rape and arson investigations, and Maj. Shawn Dace, who oversees South Patrol, which includes two districts. It’s not clear if all of those officers currently work for The City’s Finest.

Dace and the four captains, through the department, declined to comment.

Many of the city’s wealthier — and predominantly white — neighborhoods hire off-duty city police officers from companies like The City’s Finest to supplement patrols by the department, an arrangement that creates disparities in how the city is protected. That many top officers moonlight for a private company that exists to shore up the department’s crime-fighting shortcomings suggests deep troubles, experts said.

Peter Joy, a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said there would be less demand for The City’s Finest and other companies if the police department was more effective.

“If there was less crime in those areas, The City’s Finest would have less business,” said Joy, an expert in legal ethics and criminal justice. “So, there appears to me to be a conflict of interest.”

Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school who has studied moonlighting by police, said officers’ dual roles can lead to real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“If you do your job as a public officer too well, you’re going to put your security company out of business,” said Stoughton, a former police officer. “I’m not saying that’s actually going to happen. But it certainly creates this perception.

“The question in the public’s mind is: Who are you actually doing this for right now?”

Because the organizational chart at The City’s Finest is independent of the police department’s command structure, high-ranking officers on the police force sometimes must take direction from their departmental subordinates while working at The City’s Finest. The chief operating officer for The City’s Finest, for instance, is a city lieutenant, yet several higher ranking command officers are under him at the company.

“I’ve got commanders that work every day in different contract areas, and they're like some of the best officers out there,” said Charles “Rob” Betts, who owns The City’s Finest. “They do great, great work and they’re very professional. It’s a good thing, and I think it encourages the other officers that work there. When they see a commander working side by side, it builds morale.”

Betts said he likes to assign leadership roles in his company to commanders “because they’re already in a supervisory role and they understand the importance of that supervisory role.” But some lower ranking officers also have leadership positions. “I have some that I just like their work ethic and they do great work.”

Betts said he had never received a complaint about a commander working for his company.

“I haven’t seen any unethical behavior and I wouldn’t want to be part of it,” he said.

Nate Lindsey, a former official with a taxing district in the Dutchtown neighborhood in the south section of the city, said the department has a culture that views policing almost as a private enterprise.

“Private companies,” he said, “are setting the agenda for what law enforcement looks like in the city of St. Louis.”

Too many police commanders, Lindsey added, are “out there doing secondary gigs as opposed to, say, spending their evenings answering emails to people that they serve within their actual district.”

But Jay Schroeder, the president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the police union, said the department’s command staff was, in his mind, simply trying to supplement incomes that lag behind those at other area departments. Police captains in St. Louis earn about $88,000 a year, while police captains in neighboring St. Louis County earn about $110,000, according to published payroll data.

Unlike patrol officers and sergeants, command officers in the city are not eligible for overtime. “These guys have tuition to pay and kids in college and all that stuff,” Schroeder said, “and they’re just trying to make ends meet like everybody else.”

Heather Taylor, the city’s deputy director of public safety, was making about $74,000 when she retired in 2020 as a sergeant after 20 years with the department. She makes about $99,000 in her new role, which she said she needed to shoulder heavy health care costs for her family.

“I couldn’t imagine right now being a sergeant and dealing with issues that I’m dealing with now with the pay that I was being paid,” she said. “I think that the story that probably will be missed within this story is why would any officers need to work secondaries as much as our officers work?”

The city declined to comment otherwise on the prevalence of police commanders working for private policing companies.

Some of the department’s highest-ranking officers sometimes spend their off hours performing tasks that their subordinates would typically do at their day jobs, essentially providing white-glove service to paying customers.

Documents obtained by ProPublica through an open records request show that Cousins sent emails to coordinate The City’s Finest’s response to such issues as a car abandoned on the street and a golf cart theft, trivial matters compared with the sorts of crimes he tries to solve for the police department.

At the time of the emails, Cousins was commander of South Patrol, an area that includes two of the city’s six police districts but does not include Soulard, where he worked for The City’s Finest as a project manager. It’s not clear who Cousins was on the clock for when he sent the emails. The department would not release data showing when he was working for the city.

Cousins said in an email that the department allowed him to work for a second employer and that his responsibilities for the company included scheduling officers for patrol, patrolling himself, attending Soulard meetings and advising officers for the company and the police department about ongoing crime issues.

He said that it was important to address even the smallest concerns residents bring because if they are left unaddressed they can lead to bigger problems. “Should I have allowed those concerns to languish and wait for someone to later address the issues instead of providing a timely response because it’s not as important as a robbery or a homicide?” he asked.

Capt. Michael Mueller served for more than four years as the commander of the department’s Fifth District, which straddles the Delmar Boulevard divide to include the upscale Central West End and several higher-crime neighborhoods to the north. That means he was responsible for making decisions about how to deploy resources across an area with massive disparities in wealth.

At the same time, he walked a foot patrol in the Central West End for The City’s Finest.

People eat at outdoors tables outside a restaurant.
The Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis Credit: Michael Thomas for ProPublica

The neighborhood official who has managed Mueller’s patrols for The City’s Finest said that he doesn’t see any conflict. “He’s not working secondary for us because he’s the captain of a district,” said Jim Whyte, a retired city police officer who is executive director of the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative, which oversees The City’s Finest patrols. “We don’t care if we’re hiring a patrolman or a colonel; we’re hiring a police officer that has the powers of arrest that can enforce statutes and ordinances.”

On one occasion, in February 2020, Whyte — who is not a police department employee — suggested in an email that Mueller make an arrest in a trespassing case. A man had repeatedly gone into a cosmetics store in the Central West End where an employee had a restraining order against him. In an email to a police officer copied to Mueller, Whyte wrote: “I will pass that along to the secondary officers. Actually Captain Mueller will likely apprehend him quicker than anyone else.”

Whyte said that protecting the business and its employee from the trespassing suspect was important to the health of the neighborhood and “we don’t get the police response on trespassing.”

Mueller was recently transferred to another police district; he did not respond to a request for comment.

Stoughton, the law professor who has studied police moonlighting, said that a police officer who works as a privately hired officer in the same district where he is in command could have divided loyalties. As a commander, he might want to commit more of the police department’s resources to the area where he draws a second paycheck. But he also might want to hold back resources because his private employer’s business depends on a need for more policing there.

Campbell Security and Service Group, a smaller private policing company that competes with The City’s Finest for contracts, also employs senior command staff from the city. It works in a handful of neighborhoods.

Among the 60 city officers who have sought and been granted permission to work for Campbell are Interim Chief Michael Sack, Bureau of Professional Standards commander Maj. Eric Larson and three district commanders. One of those district commanders, Capt. Christi Marks, said she had not worked for Campbell in about five years. The others, through the police department, declined to comment.

Corby Campbell, the company’s owner, said senior department officials on his payroll worked both as private patrol officers and as consultants. “It can be anything from just a simple question to an idea, like, ‘What do you think?’” he said. “There are no time frames, it could be nothing for a month or two and I might have something I want to run by them.”