ST. LOUIS (AP) — A car crash four years ago was the final straw for officer Ellis Brown's career with St. Louis police.

Brown and his partner were tailing a car late one night in the Central West End when the driver lost control and hit a light pole, causing a fire that engulfed the car, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The officers didn't stop to give aid. They didn't radio in the crash so that paramedics might respond to the burning car with a woman inside. Instead, they left the area and later lied on reports to account for their time that night, according to state disciplinary records from the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

The woman was not seriously injured in the Sept. 15, 2016, crash, according to St. Louis police. Brown denied the misconduct in court filings, but state officials placed his police license on probation.

The officer had come under scrutiny before for his conduct while in uniform and left the department in January 2017. Within a month, he was hired just a few miles away at another department: St. Ann police.

Brown would become one of a series of officers hired at the force serving about 14,000 in north St. Louis County after high-profile scandals or firings at larger agencies, the Post-Dispatch found. 

Recent hires include officers at the center of controversial police shootings, one with a history of drug abuse and others accused of assault, domestic abuse or lying to superiors. Others were hired after police chases with past departments that resulted in deaths. 

Chief Aaron Jimenez, one of the only elected police chiefs in the region, leads the force of about 50 officers in St. Ann and has made news in the past for his aggressive use of police chases, heavy ticketing of highway drivers and fiery statements. 

The chief defends his hiring decisions, but it's clear St. Ann is taking part in something of a tradition in St. Louis-area policing: the shifting of officers with questionable records among the metro area's more than 100 police departments, known in law enforcement circles as the "muni shuffle" or "North County shuffle."

Smaller, cash-strapped cities, especially in north St. Louis County, have for years taken on experienced police officers with a troubled past willing to accept a lower wage.

The practice prompted Missouri to begin revoking police licenses in the 1980s. In 2003, the pattern was the focus of a series in the Post-Dispatch and then received national attention during protests after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, just a few miles from St. Ann.

Today, as the country grapples with a dramatic shift around police reform, there is again a focus on ideas for officer misconduct registries and disciplinary practices aimed at holding problem officers accountable along with the departments, like St. Ann, that still hire them. 

Checkered past 

It wasn't just that 2016 fiery crash that followed Ellis Brown to St. Ann.

Brown made news in 2014 when he was one of two officers involved in the shooting death of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell after they were called to investigate reports of Powell stealing an energy drink and snacks from a market. The death came 10 days after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, and prompted protests of its own with critics claiming the officers should have been able to subdue Powell without using deadly force.

The Circuit Attorney's Office declined to charge either officer, finding that they could argue a reasonable fear for their lives when Powell approached them with a knife.

Powell's family sued the officers and the city in 2017 and litigation is ongoing. 

Brown later drew headlines again when multiple criminal cases connected to his investigations were thrown out of court. Lawyers found he had submitted nearly identical language on at least 19 search warrant applications. In each, he said a tip and stakeout indicated drug sales in a home. 

"He would just change what kind of dope and the address," defense lawyer John Stobbs told the Post-Dispatch at the time, adding, "Anyone who has an Ellis Brown search warrant — they're not going to plead guilty. They're going to trial." 

The crash that ended Brown's career with St. Louis police happened a short time later and he was allowed to resign by then-police Chief Sam Dotson. 

Brown now leads the St. Ann detective bureau. He's trusted with high-profile cases, including filing the arrest warrants for the men charged last year with killing North County Police Cooperative officer Michael Langsdorf. Multiple attempts by the Post-Dispatch to reach Brown for comment were unsuccessful. 

After hiring Brown, Chief Jimenez over the next three years continued to take on officers ousted from other departments. 

He hired Joshua Becherer, who resigned from St. Louis police in 2017 after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic assault. Becherer was accused of pointing a loaded rifle at a woman's face and threatening to kill her, according to St. Louis police misconduct reports. Becherer was never convicted, but a state investigation ended with his police license placed on probation. He has since left St. Ann. He could not be reached to respond to the allegations.

A few months after Becherer's hire, Jimenez also took on Mark Jakob, one of two former St. Louis County police officers accused of lying to superiors about an August 2018 police chase that ended in two deaths.

Jakob and his partner attempted to pull over a car for running a red light and speeding in Ferguson, police said at the time. The car fled and shortly after crashed into a tree, killing driver Mikel Neil, 49, and passenger Townsal Woolfolk, 59.

The department first told the media that officers never chased the car, keeping with department policy to chase only for major offenses. But surveillance video released by activists showed the officers speeding after the vehicle and prompted an investigation and a Missouri Highway Patrol report.

Chief Jon Belmar fired both officers in November 2018. The chief told reporters the officers had misled internal investigators and discredited the department. The St. Louis County Police Officer's Association condemned the firings.

The families of the two men who were killed sued the county and the officers for wrongful death. Both lawsuits are ongoing. 

Jakob was hired in January 2019 as a patrolman in St. Ann, but his attorney, Gabe Crocker, said he left the department within a few months. 

"Mr. Jakob no longer works in law enforcement," Crocker said. "However the appeal of his termination from the county is still pending and we look forward to his day in court."

Two months after taking on Jakob, Jimenez also hired former St. Louis police Officer Christopher Tanner, who made national news in 2017 when he shot fellow St. Louis officer Milton Green.

According to police accounts, Tanner did not recognize his armed, off-duty co-worker during a search for a suspect in the north St. Louis neighborhood where Green lived. 

Green, who is black, last year sued the police department along with Tanner, who is white. He alleged in the suit that race played a role in the shooting and how he was treated in the department afterward. 

Tanner also was named in a 2017 lawsuit filed by a man who claimed the officer deployed a Taser on him while he was handcuffed on the ground.

Tanner left St. Louis police for St. Ann in spring of 2019, taking a salary cut of about $15,000. He remains a detective there today.

Tanner later was joined in St. Ann by former St. Louis police officer Jonathan Foote, who resigned after a traffic stop he initiated ended in a crash that killed a bystander. 

St. Louis police said a convertible that Foote attempted to stop fled and broadsided a passing SUV driven by Joseph Powell, 68, who died from his injuries. 

St. Louis police policy forbids officers from chasing suspects except for serious felonies. Foote resigned from the department five days after the crash and was hired by St. Ann within two weeks. He worked in the detective division, but is no longer a police officer in Missouri.

In another instance, Christopher Childers was fired from the St. Louis police force after he was charged with misdemeanor assault in April 2019. He was accused of attempting to stun another officer with his department-issued Taser while she was driving their patrol car on Washington Avenue. Childers was trying to demonstrate that it could not penetrate a bulletproof vest, according to court records. He was also accused of pointing a gun at himself and the other officer while practicing pulling his weapon while seated, the records said. 

Childers told internal investigators that the car was not moving at the time, but that was contradicted by in-car video, according to disciplinary records.

He was fired in March 2019, but was acquitted of the assault charge at trial. He took a job in St. Ann last February, for about $14,500 less in salary. 

"I firmly believe that he should not have been fired," said Childers' attorney, Nikki Moody, who is representing him in an appeal of his firing in St. Louis. "He was found not guilty of any criminal action. A mistake was made after 11 years of decorated service."

Jimenez also hired a police officer who left a long career at the St. Charles County department. About a year after his hire, the officer died of a fentanyl overdose, an autopsy by the St. Louis County medical examiner's office found.

Family members told the medical examiner's office that he had a known history of drug abuse, the autopsy said. Jimenez did not respond to a question from the Post-Dispatch on whether he knew about the officer's drug history prior to his death.

Representatives for Tanner and Foote could not be reached for comment.

Chief responds

A Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer were told minutes before a scheduled interview with Jimenez on Wednesday that he would not attend. Instead, the chief sent the newspaper a statement that the department also posted on social media the same day defending his hiring decisions. 

"St. Ann Police Department staff, police officers, dispatchers, and corrections officers go through a thorough and rigorous hiring process that is fair, but strict, so that we are employing the best people while following all Missouri and federal guidelines," the statement read. 

Jimenez said St. Ann is an accredited department and cited a survey of residents in arguing that it's popular in the community. 

His statement added, "We have a board of civilian police commissioners that review and make recommendations on who to hire as police officers. Without approval from the board of police commissioners, an applicant for the position of police officer cannot be hired." 

But members of that civilian board have family and financial ties to Jimenez, prompting questions about their ability to provide independent oversight of the department.

For example, the chief's younger brother, Vincent Jimenez, is a police commissioner. So is Scott Collett, who hosted a fundraiser for Jimenez's 2017 campaign that raised more than $18,000 — the bulk of the chief's campaign fund that year, according to election filings.

The next year, Jimenez opted to sponsor Collett's son, Tyler Hebisen, through the police academy at an expense of at least $12,000 to the city, according to invoices reported in St. Ann City Council minutes. Jimenez then hired Hebisen in May 2019 as an officer.

Another commissioner, Ray Amanat, has gotten paid work from the department. Jimenez required many officers to go to Amanat, a martial arts expert and anti-bullying motivational speaker, for their self defense training at an expense to the city.

Amanat is certified by Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST, which oversees police licensing, but has not worked in law enforcement. 

Members of the police board are approved by the St. Ann Board of Aldermen and the mayor, and meeting minutes show Jimenez has put names forward with unanimous votes.

As an elected chief, there are also limits on oversight of Jimenez, as he is not subject to replacement by the mayor or aldermen. Jimenez came into office with 75% of the vote in 2013 as the successor to 24-year police Chief Robert Schrader. Jimenez ran unopposed in 2017 and will be up for reelection in 2021.

Mayor Michael Corcoran in a statement voiced his support for keeping an elected chief, but did not respond to a question about the approval by city leaders of appointing Jimenez' brother and close associates to the police board. 

"Residents have consistently indicated that they prefer the ability to select who their chief will be every four years rather than one appointed for them," Corcoran said.

"St. Ann voters have twice overwhelmingly selected Chief Jimenez and I respect their right to make this choice," the mayor wrote. "The chief has made many positive changes that directly reflect the diversification of our city."

Mirya Holman, a professor at Tulane University, has published research showing some concerns with elected heads of law enforcement agencies. Such elections often feature a low turnout and many times there are not high-quality challengers, Holman found. 

"Most of the quality candidates work for the person they'd be running against," she said, adding that as an elected official police chiefs can often receive more discretion.

Police registry

In Washington, leaders looking to stop practices like the muni shuffle have centered on proposals for a national police misconduct registry.

Democrats are pushing for a database cataloging disciplinary records, firings and misconduct complaints, while an executive order from President Donald Trump calls on the U.S. attorney general to establish a database to share misconduct information among law enforcement agencies.

Jackson County, Missouri, Sheriff Darryl Forté, a former Kansas City police chief, also joined the call earlier this month, publicly advocating for Missouri to create a similar system on the state level. 

"Throughout my 35-year career in law enforcement, I've seen too many officers be given the option to resign before they're terminated and then they end up in law enforcement again," he told The Kansas City Star. 

Missouri's laws on officer misconduct and police licensing is ahead of many states, said Roger Goldman, professor emeritus at St. Louis University School of Law, who has been a national leader on police licensing and misconduct reform. 

Missouri enacted a law in 1988 allowing the state to revoke police licenses. Five states still have no police licenses that can be revoked or put on probation.

One catalyst for the law in Missouri was a particularly grave local case of the muni shuffle, Goldman said. 

Misconduct allegations against an officer named Joseph Sorbello included beating suspects and fabricating evidence while he was with Maplewood police. He then bounced to Bridgeton Terrace and shot and killed a man who was breaking into Sorbello's car, creating a public outcry. 

Missouri, unlike other states, also allows an officer to be disciplined for reasons other than a criminal conviction, including "moral turpitude," Goldman said.

But Goldman said Missouri's system of punishment for police misconduct is still limited. 

"It usually depends on chiefs to report misconduct, if they don't do that POST may never know about it to open an investigation," Goldman said.

An audit of POST in 2004 confirmed many chiefs weren't following the requirement of reporting the reason for an officer's departure within 30 days.

Since 2015, POST has revoked 60 police licenses and 196 officers have voluntarily surrendered their license. 

But details of most of POST's disciplinary work are closed to the public by state law, unlike proposals for public misconduct registries. 

Goldman suggests police should have a registry similar to those created for doctors that would allow officers to post responses to the claims. 

"Any sanction by a state medical board is usually public, why not do the same for law enforcement?" he said. 

Goldman added there needs to be enough accountability to outweigh incentives for small departments that hire problem officers.

"With so many tiny departments with little money to train, the muni shuffle is inevitable on some level," he said. "There's too much incentive to look past what somebody did in their last job and say, hey, maybe things will be different here."