Lawyers call it avoiding the appearance of impropriety. It involves not engaging in something that, though legal, gives the wrong impression.

This phenomenon is nothing new in political circles. In the time of Julius Caesar, Caesar was adamant that his wife be above suspicion. And so the Roman ruler is said to have divorced her when she was not – even though rumors of her adultery were not necessarily substantiated.

Of course, the modern political arena has its own issues and challenges regarding public perceptions and private conduct. In a current case that is roiling St. Louis, St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch is at odds with the chairman of the St. Louis County Police Board over the propriety of the participation of the chairman’s company in a costly crime lab project.

Chief Fitch has gone so far as to call for a federal investigation of the procurement process. This week, many past and present St. Louis officers expressed their support for the chief. The officers are concerned that the country executive may try to force Fitch out of his job due to the political tension.

The crime lab project is not the only source of this tension. There have also been differences of opinion among police board members about other issues, such allegations of racial profiling by country police officers.

The political considerations involved in the crime lab case also concern the county council. Members of the police board are nominated by the country executive, but must be confirmed by the country council.

In short, the political dynamics in St. Louis County are complicated, involving power dispersed among a number of different players. An FBI investigation of the crime lab procurement process does not necessarily mean there will be federal charges. Indeed, the crime lab issue may be only the latest occasion for the county’s complicated political dynamics to surface.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Officers’ groups back St. Louis County police chief in controversy over construction contract,” Christine Byers, August 12, 2013