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In historic vote, aldermen send civilian oversight of St. Louis police to Mayor Slay

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed signs legislation creating a civilian oversight board for St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

More than 30 years of work by city aldermen and activists paid off Monday, as the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a civilian oversight board for the city's police department.

Applause broke out in the chambers as President Lewis Reed announced the 17-8 vote. Two members voted present, and one alderman did not vote at all.

The measure marks the culmination of 10 years of work for Ald. Terry Kennedy, who first sat down with Mayor Francis Slay and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in 2004 to start talking about a civilian oversight board. The Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression has lobbied for a civilian oversight board since the 1980s. 

"Is there lots more that needs to be done? Certainly," Kennedy said. "But where do you start? At what point do you say we must begin someplace and take the first step. We see this as taking that first step."

The measure as written creates a seven-person board, whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Aldermen. The board has the authority to oversee internal affairs investigations of civilian complaints; conduct its own internal investigations if it believes the Internal Affairs Division falls short; and recommend changes to the police department's policies. 

Some aldermen were disappointed that the measure did not give members of the oversight board subpoena power. Kennedy said the city charter blocks such a move, but that supporters would push for a charter change, which would also require a city-wide vote.

Here's how individual members of the board voted on Monday:

  • Ayes: Alds. Flowers, Bosley, Moore, Hubbard, Conway, Green, Roddy, Kennedy, Davis, Schmid, French, Boyd, Cohn, Williamson, Carter, Krewson, President Reed.
  • Nays: Alds. Tyus, Ortmann, Vollmer, Villa, Arnowitz, Murphy, Baringer, Vaccaro
  • Present: Alds. Ingrassia, Ogilvie
  • Did not vote: Ald. Howard

The measure generated nearly two hours of passionate back-and-forth discussion, with many supporters admitting they did not think the measure went far enough.
"It's not perfect," said Ald. Craig Schmid, who took his last vote as a member of the Board of Aldermen on Monday. "There's a lot a moving pieces. But we do need to do this. It's the beginning of an entire process."

Ald. Antonio French took over the responsibility of shepherding the bill to the mayor's desk after Terry Kennedy became chair of the Public Safety committee. 

"When I added my name to the bill, I made a decision to support it and to push forward the best possible version we could get," French said. "A 'no' vote is saying that you are satisfied with the status quo, and that should not be good enough for any of us."

Opponents of the measure fell into two camps -- those who believed the measure needed more teeth, and those who believe it went too far. Ald. Sharon Tyus was a member of the first camp. She was especially concerned about how dependent the panel would be on the city's Department of Public Safety, which is closely tied to Mayor Slay.

"If we have a civilian oversight board that is staffed by the public safety director, if he says, 'We don't have time.' Then, there's nothing we can't do about it," Tyus said. "There's no autonomy at all." Activists plan to push for legislation that would separate the oversight board from the public safety department.

Ald. Joe Vaccaro agreed with Tyus that the bill would not do what it was intended to do, but he was more concerned about its impact on the police department. His son is a homicide detective, and his daughter is also employed by the department.

"To say that police are opposed to some kind of oversight would be wrong. They just want input," Vaccaro said.

Supporters of a civilian oversight board filled the gallery of the Board of Aldermen chambers on April 20, 2015.
Credit Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio
Supporters of a civilian oversight board filled the gallery of the Board of Aldermen chambers on April 20, 2015.

Next steps

In a statement, Mayor Slay said he looks forward to signing the measure into law.

"The passage of the Civilian Oversight Board legislation by aldermen reflects two things:  an awareness that one is needed, and a willingness to compromise to get it. Now the real work starts as we begin to implement it."

Thirty days after Slay signs the bill into law, members of the Board of Aldermen will have to submit their nominees for the board's seven seats. Proponents of civilian oversight will be focusing their attention on that nomination process. It's expected to take at least six months for the board to get its operational procedures in place and begin its work.

That's almost certain to trigger a lawsuit from the St. Louis Police Officer's Association, which argues the measure, as written, violates Missouri law.

"We went to great lengths to offer constructive procedural and legal suggestions intended to make the Civilian Review Board both more effective and legal," said union president Joe Steiger in a statement. "Despite our significant commitment, the framers of the legislation that was approved this morning chose to ignore us."

Steiger told reporters after the vote that a protracted legal fight goes against the efforts to improve police-community relations.

"When you pass a bill like this that’s flawed in the way this is, it’s immediately going end us up in court. I don’t know how that improves relations," he said.

St. Louis police are still investigating the fracas that erupted in January at a committee hearing on the measure. Jeff Roorda, the union's business manager, is accused of assaulting a woman in attendance.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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