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St. Louis Police Propose Body Cameras, Civilian Review Panel

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

The city of St. Louis is looking to add two new levels of oversight to its police department.

Public safety director Richard Gray announced today that he will ask the city’s budget committee to look into purchasing body cameras for the city’s 900 patrol officers to wear while on duty. Logistically, that would probably mean about 600 cameras.

“I can recall when I was president of the St. Louis police board, us having conversations about body cams,” Gray said. “What Ferguson has done has accelerated it, not only with us, but a lot of other departments.” The city would be the third department in the region, after Ferguson and St. Louis County, to deploy the cameras.

Gray said research has shown that people change how they behave toward a police officer if they know a body camera is in use. But he said it also adds a level of certainty for citizens who have to interact with the police.

“Instead of having someone’s phone videotaping what’s going on they’ll be in a position that whatever that case may be that they’re stopped for, or whatever issue they may have, they know there’s going to be an accurate recording," Gray said.

The cameras cost about $1,200, not including the price of maintenance and data storage.

Gray also announced today that he and police chief Sam Dotson, at the request of Mayor Francis Slay, have been working with Ward 18 Alderman Terry Kennedy on legislation that would create a citizen oversight board to improve transparency and community relations.

“Any panel has to do two things. It has to be fair to the citizens and the community, and it has to be fair to the officers,” Dotson said. Slay vetoed a version of legislation to create a citizen oversight board in 2006 because he thought it was unfair to police.  

Kennedy was an author of that 2006 bill. He said a panel would have to be independent from the police department so people can feel comfortable registering their complaints. It must have enough staff to investigate those complaints, he said, and it has to be able to get at the information it needs to do those investigations.

“We are all on the same page about understanding the necessity of having [a civilian review board] and what kind of good it will do for the city,” Kennedy said. “We’re approaching an agreement about its powers and duties, what types of authority if will have, the structuring and selection of the members.”

Kennedy said calls for a civilian review panel go back to the 1930s, when an officer shot and killed a handcuffed black man whom they claimed was trying to flee.

Use Of Force

The two announcements came at the beginning of a nearly five-hour meeting devoted to exploring when and how a St. Louis police officer can use force against a suspect.

SLMPD officers are trained to use a continuum of force, chief Dotson told the public safety committee. A certain number of situations will calm down simply because police show up. If that doesn’t work, he said, officers can issue verbal commands, then escalate to open-hand contact like slaps, closed-hand contact like punches and kicks, then to non-lethal and finally lethal force, which is authorized when an officer believes his life or the lives of others is in danger.

“We have to make a promise to our officers that they are allowed to go home if they do their job morally, ethically and legally,” Dotson told the committee.

Alderman Sharon Tyus, of the first ward, is a former public defender. She said she had been hoping to hear something different.

“I wanted to hear you say that at the end of the day, I want the police officers and the citizens to go home,” she said. “When you say I want the police to go home, you sound like an occupying force to me.”

Twenty-first Ward Alderman Antonio French, a persistently sharp critic of Chief Dotson, wondered if it might be time for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to exercise some authority under local control and put additional limits on when officers can use deadly force in the city.

“There are very few citizens that we give the power to kill other human beings,” he said. "If we feel that if they are not exercising that responsibly, and there are instances in which other means could have been used and a human life did not have to be taken, I think it is our responsibility to review whether we want to give you guys that power.”

Use of Force Against the Mentally Ill

French made his remarks during a discussion of the case of Kajieme Powell, who was shot and killed by police outside a north St. Louis convenience store two weeks after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson.

Video provided by St. Louis Metropolitan Police
A screenshot from a cell phone video shows Kaijeme Powell moments before he was shot on August 19, 2014.

 On a cell phone video provided by witnesses to police, Powell is heard to yell at officers, “shoot me, kill me now,” as he advances toward the two officers. Witnesses had reported that Powell was armed with a knife, and one was recovered at the scene. Powell had not been diagnosed with a mental illness, but questions immediately arose if he was trying to commit suicide by police.

“There’s two questions here,” French said. “What is legally allowable, and what should have happened.” He then proceeded to read from the city’s police manual on the use of Tasers:

“Examples of a situation where the Taser may be considered include, but are not limited to, a perceived mentally ill subject who may be violent and pose a threat to officers and others.”

The key word may be deployed, Dotson said. Tasers are not always effective, and a knife within 21 feet of an officer is considered a deadly weapon.

Many aldermen were clearly uncomfortable with the way that mental illness and the use of deadly force can come together.

“So many people are out there suffering from mental illness and the state of Missouri doesn’t really seem to care that much,” said Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, 22nd Ward.

"I will talk about the need for mental health care all day long," Dotson said.

“What you’re seeing is the men and women in blue uniforms are becoming the service providers,” he said. “You don’t want that, they don’t want that, they’re not trained for that.”

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann