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Proposed special committee on police shootings facing headwinds

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, listens in at a recent hearing of the Board of Aldermen's Legislative Committee.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

An effort by St. Louis alderman Antonio French to add an additional set of eyes to police policy is running into some headwinds.

French introduced a resolution on May 21 that would create a special committee to look at officer-involved shootings between January 2014 and the end of this year and recommend changes to policy or city law. The board's rules committee held its second hearing on the measure Wednesday without taking a vote. A third hearing of that standing committee is scheduled for next week.

French does not intend for the special committee to investigate individual cases -- that's already handled by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the circuit attorney's office. In fact, a paragraph he added at the suggestion of the prosecutor Jennifer Joyce, reads:

"... the purpose of this special committee is not to investigate particular cases or in any way replicate, duplicate, or replace the functions of the police department internal affairs division, the Circuit Attorney, the personnel department, the civilian oversight board, or any other agency. The purpose of this special committee, as a part of the legislative branch of government of the City of St. Louis is to examine these occurrences and the reports of the various agencies to determine where changes to law and policy are necessary, if at all, and how the Board of Aldermen can help improve our city."

But members of the rules committee, which is reviewing French's proposal, remained concerned. Both of Alderman Joe Vaccaro's children work for the police department, and he said officers view the proposed special committee as an attack.

"I can't support this," Vaccaro said.

Other aldermen support the idea of allowing aldermen to investigate matters relating to city agencies. But they were also concerned that French's proposal could lead to a witch hunt.

"It's our job to protect the citizens as far as looking into things, but it's also to let them know that we have a belief in the things we set up," said Alderman Joe Vollmer. "I do believe that the police department and the circuit attorney do very good jobs, and I don't want to seem like we're trying to undermine them. In the public, that's what this seems like."

Alderman Joe Roddy took a similar view.

"I'm  reluctant to deny the aldermen the right to investigate anything," he said. "My only concern is that I think many of the problems that have come to light as a result of Ferguson and all the activity past Ferguson are being dropped on law enforcement when they're more deeply rooted in our society. I just feel that law enforcement has been really beaten up in the media and other areas." 

Alderman Terry Kennedy has been the only member of the committee to express unqualified support for French's resolution. Passage requires at least four votes from the six-member committee. But French said all the aldermen want the same thing, and he expects to be able to round up the votes necessary.

"As long as we tighten the language up to make sure that it’s focused on policies and ordinance recommendations, and how we as a legislative body can just ensure that we are delivering the best possible services for our constituents, I think we’ll get something out of it," he said.

The resolution's initial approval by the public safety committee is only the first step. The full Board of Aldermen must give its approval as well before President Lewis Reed can appoint special committee members. The committee would have to complete its work by the end of the legislative session.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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