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Slay: No Subpoena Power For Civilian Review Board

State Sen. Joe Keaveny has filed legislation that would return the St. Louis Police Department back to local control for the first time since the 1850s.
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Joe Keaveny has filed legislation that would return the St. Louis Police Department back to local control for the first time since the 1850s.

The legality of granting subpoena power to a proposed civilian police review board has little bearing on St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s opposition to it. Slay said Friday that he would veto a civilian review board bill that includes subpoena power no matter what the city’s charter allows.

Slay is co-sponsor of a civilian oversight bill that does not include the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. Aldermen Antonio French proposed a second bill Thursday during a public safety committee meeting that would include subpoena power.

In response, the city’s attorney said that it’s against the city’s charter to grant subpoena power to an independent board.

But when asked what he would do if the charter were to allow subpoena power, Slay said Friday that he would still veto it.

“We’ve got a delicate balance here, where we’ve got to make sure that we have something that’s meaningful, that’s going to strengthen our department and build a better relationship between the department and the community it serves but at the same time makes sure that we’re going to have a police department that’s going to do their job and do it well for the people of St. Louis,” Slay said.

Slay said that he thinks the bill he is co-sponsoring goes a long way to increase transparency even without subpoena power because it allows civilians to comment and investigate the police department.

“This is I think a very transparent approach but we’ve got to make sure that we have a bill that’s not going to tie the hands of our cops behind their backs when they’re out there protecting our neighborhoods,” Slay said, adding that he is “concerned that adding subpoena power would undermine the compromise” of the civilian oversight board he supports.

Original post from Thursday February 2, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and most members of the Board of Aldermen are in agreement that a civilian review board is necessary to provide oversight for the the city's police department. What they disagree on is how much power the board should have.

In contrast to last week's raucous Public Safety Committee meeting that included a scuffle, aldermen debated the issue more civilly at the committee meeting Thursday. The discussion centered largely on whether the oversight board of seven citizens should have subpoena power.

"The version we are considering here in St. Louis has no ability to punish officers — only to investigate," said Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward. "Without subpoena power, the civilian oversight board is really at the whims of the chief."

The current bill does not call for subpoena power, and several aldermen expressed concern that including it now could damage its ability to pass the full board.

In 2006, the Board of Aldermen passed a bill establishing a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, said French, but that bill was vetoed by Mayor Francis Slay.

There are legal questions as to whether a civilian oversight board could have subpoena power. French told the committee that he reached out to the attorney general's office last week and was told that the board could have that power. He says the attorney general has since backtracked from that stance.

The attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment. But the Post-Dispatch reported that the attorney general's office has said: “Current state law does not provide an obstacle to the board’s delegation of the subpoena power, there may be remaining questions regarding the specifics of the charter of the city of St. Louis that are beyond the scope of the research ... ”

The city counselor, who is appointed by the mayor, said that the city charter doesn't allow the board to have subpoena power.

"There is no provision of the charter that expressly allows a Civilian Oversight Board to have subpoena power," Winston Calvert wrote. "We have not identified any provision of the city charter that necessarily implies that the Board of Aldermen may give an independent board like the proposed civilian oversight board the power to subpoena witnesses or to compel the production of documents."

French said the aldermen should first be considering if subpoena power is warranted -- and then consider how to get it to the civilian board.

"There are many ways to give subpoena power to a board, including putting it to a vote of the people if a charter change is necessary," French said. "The first question is whether or not there’s a will to give this body subpoena power. But there seems to be a lot of disagreement about whether we want this board to have teeth or not.”

There were no votes taken on the bill. The committee is meeting again on Monday, when it could vote on a proposal. Whether that'll include subpoena power is still to be decided.

"We’re going to count our votes over the next few days and construct a bill accordingly,” French said.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel