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St. Louis aldermen propose subpoena power for Civilian Oversight Board

Civilian Oversight Board members Ciera Simril (File photo) March 16, 2016
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Legislation introduced last week would give members of the city's Civilian Oversight Board, including Ciera Simril (left) and Heather Highland (right) subpoena power.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen may act this year to give the panel that reviews police discipline the authority to issue subpoenas.

A board bill introduced last week has 13 co-sponsors and the support of Mayor Lyda Krewson, but it’s already facing opposition from the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

Aldermen created the Civilian Oversight Board in 2015. Its seven members review the internal affairs investigations of police misconduct, open their own independent investigations as needed, and suggest changes to police policy.

But activists have argued the lack of subpoena power prevents the board from doing truly thorough investigations. The bill would allow the board to order witnesses to appear in front of them, and demand documents and other materials like videotapes that could help with their reviews.

“It certainly gives the vision in people’s minds that there is a body that can investigate that is both independent and has the power to get the information that they need,” said Ald. Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, and a long-time champion of the oversight board.

He said research by the U.S. Department of Justice shows such boards across the country that have subpoena power rarely use it for internal documents or witnesses, but instead use it to get video from a store owner, for example.

The oversight board’s executive director, Nicolle Barton, said the members so far have been able to access all the information they need to conduct their reviews.

“But the board has the power to vote to do a separate independent investigation, and in the event that we do that, there is a great chance we would need subpoena power for that,” she said.

Both Barton and Kennedy said the additional authority would also improve people’s confidence in the board. The Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression agreed, but said the board could do more with the power it already had.

“As we move toward subpoena power, the community also needs to insist that the COB exercise the powers it already has. For example, the COB has the authority to investigate policies and practices such as the recent police response to protests. Those types of investigation, not yet conducted by the COB, could go a long way in changing the culture of the department,” the statement concluded.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association blasted the bill calling it illegal and a waste of money. Kennedy said the attorney for the aldermen disagreed.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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