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Aldermen back civilian oversight of St. Louis jails

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen holds a virtual meeting on November 23, 2021
Screenshot / Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Thursday gave initial approval to a measure establishing a civilian oversight board for the city's jails.

Civilian oversight of St. Louis’ jails is a step closer to taking effect.

The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday narrowly gave first-round approval to a measure that creates the Detention Facilities Oversight Board. Its nine members — six appointed by the mayor and three by the chair of the public safety committee — would investigate living and working conditions at the city jails. They would also serve as advisers to the mayor about the facilities.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro of the 23rd Ward, the measure’s sponsor, resisted several efforts to delay a vote to address concerns about the legal and financial details of the bill.

“Every day we play around and we debate, just remember that people are not getting the help that they need,” he said.

Those who voted against the measure, like 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan, said they agreed the jail needed additional oversight but had questions about the details.

“I admire the empathy of the alderman from the 23rd [Vaccaro] on this issue,” Narayan said. “What I don’t want to do here is create something that isn’t going to get the job done that we would like it to.”

A spokesman for Mayor Tishaura Jones said she agreed there should be additional oversight for corrections but wanted to ensure the proper resources were available.

Jones has her own proposal to create a separate department that would house both the corrections and police civilian oversight boards. That legislation has yet to be introduced.

Marijuana penalties reduced

Aldermen on Tuesday also sent Jones a measure that brings the city’s ordinances in line with a medical marijuana program voters approved in 2018 by further reducing the penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug. The mayor said in a statement she looks forward to signing “this critical bill.”

When it takes effect, the smell of marijuana or presence of a joint alone would no longer be enough reason to arrest someone. The city would also no longer be permitted to spend resources on prosecuting someone with a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia like pipes.

City employees would be able to avoid being disciplined or fired for a positive drug test, although being high on the job is still not allowed.

Mask mandate extension

Aldermen on Tuesday again extended a public health order that requires everyone over the age of 5 to wear masks in indoor public places or on mass transit. A vote every 30 days is required by legislation approved in May.

The vote came the same day a Cole County judge threw out state regulations giving certain powers to local health directors. It was not clear if the ruling applied to mask requirements that have the approval of local lawmakers, orders that place limits on capacity or operating hours.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

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