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St. Louis Mayor Plans Shift To Civilian Control Of Police Misconduct Investigations

Detail from a board that covered windows at Meshuggah Cafe on Delmar Blvd.
File photo / Willis Ryder Arnold
St. Louis Public Radio
Turning over police investigations to civilians is part of a larger effort by the mayor’s office to put civilians in charge of police functions.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded this project. For more stories on police accountability go to https://pulitzercenter.org/projects/roadblocks-police-accountability

Mayor Tishaura Jones is proposing the creation of a new Office of Public Accountability run by civilians with subpoena power to investigate all major cases of abuse and misconduct by police and corrections officers.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Jared Boyd, and communications director, Nick Desideri, outlined the proposal in a series of interviews and emails with St. Louis Public Radio in recent days. They were responding in part to a story on the failureof reforms put into place after the Ferguson protests in 2014.

In addition to the Office of Public Accountability, the mayor’s police reform plan is to appoint a new city counselor this week or next. She will review the legal position that the city has taken in a number of civil rights suitsagainst the city over the behavior of its police and corrections officers. In particular, the city will consider changing its defense of officers involved in the 2015 death of Nicholas Gilbert in a St. Louis police holdover cell where six officers were pressing him down while he was bound and shackled.

Turning over police investigations to civilians is part of a larger effort by the mayor’s office to put civilians in charge of police functions that civilians could do better, Boyd said. The broken 911 emergency call system — widely criticized for its slow response times — is another area where this may be the case, Boyd said. The mayor’s office has been working with senior members of the Board of Aldermen's Public Safety Committee on the changes.

“For the last two or three months we’ve been talking to senior aldermen to start an Office of Public Accountability to address some of the shortcomings you (STLPR) identified with the Force Investigation Unit and Civilian Oversight Board,” Boyd said. “The office will be set up with an eye to have it walled off from police,” he added.

The Office of Public Accountability would employ civilian civil service investigators to lead the investigations into misconduct by police and corrections officials. When the investigators need the help of law enforcement officers, the civilian investigators could bring them into the process, Desideri said. But the office would have to be careful that the officers brought in to help execute search warrants or other law enforcement tasks did not know the officers under investigation and did not have conflicts of interest. The civilian investigators from the Office of Public Accountability would continue to direct the investigations, he said.

The Civilian Oversight Board would oversee the Office of Public Accountability. The Oversight Board was set up after the 2014 events in Ferguson to provide more civilian involvement in investigations. That board has fallen short. It did not review any of the 21 police killings in St. Louis from 2016 through 2019, nor has it considered 96% of nonlethal police abuse complaints filed by citizens.

In fact, Jones had to issue an executive order at the start of her term this spring to make sure the complaints filed with the police department got to the Civilian Oversight Board. Previously, most had not.

Even though the board officially has subpoena power, Desideri said, it has no “mechanism” for using that power. The board has not exercised that power a single time since it was created, he said.

The mayor’s office wants to make sure that both the Office of Public Accountability and the Civilian Oversight Board have functional subpoena power, he said.

A new board of civilians would be established to oversee the Office of Public Accountability’s investigations of corrections officers, Desideri said. That new board also would have subpoena power.

The Internal Affairs unit would remain in place at the police department, Desideri said, to handle complaints of a primarily administrative nature. “But all complaints would go to the Office of Public Accountability first, which has the discretion to delegate evaluation of minor administrative complaints to Internal Affairs.”

Reconsidering the city’s legal positions

One case that has sparked the reconsideration of the city’s legal stands in police civil rights cases is the asphyxiation death of Gilbert in a police holdover cell under “prone restraint.” Six officers were on top of him while he was handcuffed and his legs were shackled.

The case has similarities to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, which brought world-wide attention and criticism, including statements of condemnation from Jones and other St. Louis public officials. But out of sight, the city was taking a strong legal stand defending police tactics in a civil rights suit filed by Gilbert’s mother, Jody Lombardo.

That disconnect attracted attention when Derek Chauvin was convicted this spring of murdering Floyd. Then the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on Gilbert’s behalf stating that resistance wasn’t enough to justify officers pressing down on a prone, restrained prisoner.

Boyd said that case and others led the mayor’s office to decide to ask a new city counselor to reconsider the city’s legal position and make it consistent with the policies advocated by public officials.

The new city counselor will look at “what winning looks like,” Boyd said. “A new city counselor is going to be given a mandate to do this. It’s not to say we shouldn’t be cognizant of city resources, but that can’t be the only thing,” as it has been historically.

Gilbert’s lawyer, Kevin Carnie Jr., said in an interview that he had been astonished by the disconnect between the mayor’s statements and the city’s strident position in court. “I’ve been shocked that the city has continued to pursue the case. They say they are shocked by George Floyd, but they are not upset about what happened in their own backyard.”

Upon hearing from a reporter last week about the plans for the new city counselor to reconsider the city’s legal position, Carnie said he was glad the city is reacting: “My client is happy to hear that the city is taking a fresh, closer look at this case. Hopefully the city will implement a much needed change in policy and training as a result.”

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded this project. For more stories on police accountability go to https://pulitzercenter.org/projects/roadblocks-police-accountability

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.