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Civilian Oversight Board For St. Louis Police Clears First Legislative Hurdle

Terry Kennedy and John Chasnoff chat after committee approval of a civilian oversight bill on February 9.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Six months to the day after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, a measure that would add an extra layer of public oversight to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department cleared its first legislative hurdle. 

The 8-1 vote by the city Board of Aldermen's public safety committee wrapped up months of negotiations between activists, aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay, as well as three lengthy and often contentious hearings by the public safety committee. Here's how members voted:

  • Ayes: Alds. Craig Schmid, Jeffrey Boyd, Antonio French, Tammika Hubbard, Chris Carter, Megan-Ellyia Green, Christine Ingrassia, Terry Kennedy
  • Nays: Ald. Joseph Vaccaro
  • Did not vote: Alds. Freeman Bosley, Larry Arnowitz

"I wish it went further," said Ald. Antonio French, who took over as the sponsor of the bill when its original architect, Terry Kennedy, became chair of the public safety committee. "There will be continuing efforts to strengthen this body over the months and years to come. But unfortunately, there just aren't the votes today to get a stronger bill." 
Even so, Kayla Reed, an activist with the Organization for Black Struggle, called the committee approval a win.

"I'm glad that it happened on the six-month mark for Mike [Brown], to show that something like this exists," she said. "Hopefully, it'll plant a seed in some of the officers' minds not to do the things that they're doing because they'll be held accountable for their actions."

The measure does not include subpoena power which has long been a wish of activists who have worked on civilian review. They plan to push separate legislation that would change the city charter to allow for subpoena power, as well as a measure that would house the civilian oversight board in its own department, rather than as part of the public safety department.

A preliminary vote by the full Board of Aldermen is expected on Friday. Mayor Francis Slay said he'll sign the measure when it reaches his desk, which under the current calendar for the Board of Aldermen would be in the spring. Members are currently scheduled to go on spring break starting on Friday, but may delay that break by a week.

When the measure is finally approved, it will almost certainly face a legal challenge from the St. Louis Police Officer's Association, the union representing most of the uniformed officers in the department.

The association is not opposed to civilian oversight, said Neil Bruntrager, the union's attorney. But its members are concerned that several provisions of the bill give members of the civilian oversight board more authority than envisioned by state law.

Bruntrager said the union is especially concerned about the provision that allows members of the civilian oversight board to sit in on internal affairs interviews, even though they wouldn't be able to ask questions.

"I don't let the judge sit in an interview when I have a police officer that's going to be tried and there's an interrogation that's going on," he said. "I don't let a judge sit in an interview when there's going to be an individual who's not a police officer in the same spot. I don't let a prosecutor sit in there."

Bruntrager said he would likely wait to take a specific case to court, rather than challenge the law as a whole.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.