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Public gets chance to weigh in on nominees for St. Louis police civilian oversight board

District Three nominee DeBorah Ahmed talks with District Seven nominee Steve Rovak after Mayor Francis Slay announced their nominations in August.
Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio

Members of the public get a chance Tuesday night to express their opinions about the nominees for St. Louis’ new police civilian oversight board.

The audience will not get to question the potential board members directly.

The seven nominees have already been through confirmation hearings by the public safety committee, though the late morning sessions were sparsely attended. They are Ciera Simril, Jane Abbott-Morris, DeBorah Ahmed, Lawrence Johnson, Bradley Arteaga, Heather Highland and Steve Rovak.

The seven people being considered for spots on the board are:

  • District One (Wards 2, 3, 21, 27) — Ciera Simril

A 27th Ward resident, Simril has the support of Alderman Chris Carter. She interned for the St. Louis American newspaper before taking a job at U.S. Bank. She helps facilitate the Neighborhood Ownership Model for several northwest-side neighborhoods, and earned a Neighborhood Star for working as an intermediary between police and residents who were afraid to talk to them.

  • District Two (Wards 5, 6, 18, 19) — Jane Abbott-Morris

A resident of the Gate District in south St. Louis, Abbott-Morris has a background in human resources, with a focus on equal employment issues. She helped the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department develop its affirmative action plan and revise their employment discrimination policy. She is also a certified mediator.
During her interview with the Public Safety Committee, Abbott-Morris said she had been supportive of the concept of the civilian oversight board since Alderman Terry Kennedy first introduced it 10 years ago. She said no one asked her to be on the board. 

Abbott-Morris' ex-husband was a police officer, but she said they do not talk about police matters, nor did they when they were married. She said most of the individuals she knew on the force have either died or retired.

  • District Three (Wards 1, 4, 22, 26) — DeBorah Ahmed

Ahmed works for Better Family Life as the executive director for its Cultural, Educational and Business Center. She is also a founder of Black Dance USA, and has served in administrative roles for a variety of arts institutions.
Her connection to Better Family Life is already raising eyebrows. The social service agency has contracts with the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri for anti-violence initiatives dating back to 2005. Her husband, Malik Ahmed, founded the organization and is its chief executive officer.

DeBorah Ahmed noted the conflict on her application. During her interview with the Public Safety committee, she said that none of the funds from the city are directed toward her salary. But it did not quell concerns about the possibility of influence.

  • District Four (Wards 7, 8, 9, 17) — Lawrence Johnson

In his professional life, Johnson, a past president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, worked as a hearing officer for the Illinois Department of Human Services. He was also heavily involved in a number of organizations in Springfield, Ill., including as chair of the Springfield Human Relations Commission.

  • District Five (Wards 11, 12, 13, 16) — Bradley Arteaga

Arteaga is a south-side resident who has his own photography business and owns Eddie's Donuts. He has been the president of the Southtown Business Association, the St. Louis Hill Neighborhood Association, and a board member of the Second Police District Association.
During Arteaga's initial appearance in front of the Public Safety committee, Alderman Antonio French quizzed him heavily about the fact that he had "liked" the Facebook page of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the union for city officers. Arteaga responded that he did it merely to know what was going on with the department.

  • District 6 (Wards 14, 15, 20, 25) — Heather Highland

Highland, a defense attorney, wrote on her application that she had both deposed and cross-examined police officers, and had also represented them in various legal matters. 

  • District Seven (Wards 10, 23, 24, 28) — Stephen Rovak

Rovak is a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force reserve veteran  who retired with the rank of colonel. In 30 years of service, he served as a judge advocate general.
"The military often looks at people who are under arms, who have to act in a very fast way, and did they act appropriately, or didn't they," Rovak said during his initial testimony to the Public Safety committee. "So when this came up, it was something that I thought would be an opportunity for public service for which I was quite qualified."

Rovak is an attorney at Denton's, and serves on the Washington University board that reviews all studies involving human subjects. He is also the co-chair of the mediation committee of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution.

Once operational, the civilian oversight board will oversee internal affairs investigations of complaints against the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Members will also be able to conduct their own investigations if they believe the department's work has fallen short, and recommend changes to police policy.

The chair of the public safety committee has scheduled one more day of public testimony before members vote. The nominees must also be approved by the full Board of Aldermen.

Tuesday's hearing begins at 6 p.m. in Room 208 at City Hall. St. Louis Public Radio will cover that hearing.

Correction. An earlier version listed the wrong bank as Ciera Simril's employer.

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