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New police and jail civilian oversight structure in St. Louis struggling to get started

The St. Louis City Justice Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
New civilian oversight mechanisms for the St. Louis police department at the City Justice Center, shown in November 2021, have been slow to get going.

Last year, the City of St. Louis made major changes to civilian oversight of its police and corrections departments, but putting them into practice remains bogged down.

The new lawbrought the Civilian Oversight Board, which had been reviewing complaints against St. Louis police officers since 2016, and the Detention Facilities Oversight Board under a newly created Division of Civilian Oversight. A full-time commissioner, plus a staff of professional investigators, would have broad authority to look into complaints against police officers and jail guards.

“Improving trust between community and police is essential to make our neighborhoods safer,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said in a statement announcing the signing of the legislation. “Through the hard work of the Board of Aldermen and community leaders, we are taking a critical step forward in fostering that trust.”

The city hired Matthew Brummund, a retired FBI agent with experience in civil rights cases, to be the first commissioner of civilian oversight.

“I viewed it as a chance to do something positive, to help forge a new way and prevent police misconduct, and as a way for people's voices to be heard,” he said.

Brummund started in his new role in June 2022 and quickly hired nine investigators – he said he would have hired more if the office space was available. Members of the newly created jail oversight board were sworn in the next month.

But the new structure ran into roadblocks almost immediately. Police unions sued, arguing the new authority given to the Civilian Oversight Board violated state law. A judge later allowed the corrections oversight portion to take effect, but the Board of Aldermen had to pass a second piece of legislation to fix the police side of things.

Because of that, the police board has not met in a year.

Civilian Oversight Board members Ciera Simril (File photo) March 16, 2016
Camille Phillips
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Civilian Police Oversight Board, including Ciera Simril, left, have not met since August 2022. She's pictured in 2016 with then-board member Heather Highland.

“I think we’ve lost a lot of credibility,” said Ciera Simril, who has been a member of the board since its inception. “I do feel like we were working in the direction of resolving a lot of things and creating that partnership that the community really needed between law enforcement and the residents.”

The roadblocks were also internal, Brummund said. He found it difficult to get information so his investigators could get to work.

“It became apparent that it was just one objection after another that even if this objection was cleared, another objection would take its place,” he said.

Members of the Detention Facilities Oversight Board were also facing obstacles.

“We should be, as my grandmother would say, ‘knee deep in the weeds right now,’" said the Rev. Darryl Gray, chairman of the board. “We should be reviewing complaints now. Even after going through a thorough, honest process of review and investigation, we should already be reviewing and making recommendations. And none of that is happening.”

Members, he said, have not even been able to get into the City Justice Center without an escort.

The detention facilities board thought about quitting en masse, Gray said, but didn’t want a new group to have to start over from scratch. Brummund, on the other hand, left after a year; Ruby Bonner, a longtime city government official, is filling that role in the interim.

Who’s to blame?

The delays on the police side can mostly be attributed to the lawsuit, said interim Public Safety Director Charles Coyle. He said vetting for new appointments to the civilian police oversight board is underway, although he did not have a timetable.

On the corrections side, Coyle said some of the responsibility lies with the members of the board.

“If they're operating without the orientation training or without having the proper rules in place, it becomes a problem,” he said. “To not go by the requirements of that ordinance, that the Board of Aldermen took a lot of time in putting together, is taking shortcuts. And taking shortcuts does not help anyone; it won't help the board do their job to advise the commissioner of corrections or the city.”

Members were aware of the requirements to get training and have their policies and procedures reviewed by the city, Coyle said. “I could not get a clear answer why it hadn't been done within a year.”

Training is crucial to making sure that civilian oversight functions well, said Cameron McElhiney, executive director of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“I myself was a member of a civilian review board in Indianapolis in the late '90s and early 2000s,” she said. “And what I quickly learned is that although I had the best intentions, I understood the mandate of the board, I knew nothing about civilian oversight.”

But the three ordinances setting up the city’s current civilian oversight structure do not make any specific reference to training for detention facilities board members other than appropriate training around the use of REJIS, a regional criminal justice data-sharing platform. The legislation that originally established the police oversight board references specific training around human rights, investigative techniques and search warrant law, among other areas, but the corrections oversight board does not appear to be included in that language.

Regardless of the lack of clarity, members are moving forward with the training, though they share Brummund’s concern that there will be another roadblock thrown up after they are complete.

“I have no doubt in my mind that once we get these 11 trainings done, four months from now, they’re going to be something new,” said board member Mike Milton during a July 17 meeting.

Gray pointed out that aldermen and grand juries are allowed into the city jail unannounced without any specialized training.

On July 31, some members of the board’s public safety committee decided to such a visit.

From left, members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee Rasheen Aldridge, Bret Narayan, Daniela Velazquez and Alisha Sonnier wait inside the Criminal Justice Center on July 31 in downtown St. Louis. The four were making an unannounced visit to the center. Once inside, they were met by Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemens-Abdullah, second from right.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee, from left, Rasheen Aldridge, Bret Narayan, Daniela Velazquez and Alisha Sonnier wait inside the Criminal Justice Center on July 31 in downtown St. Louis. The four were making an unannounced visit to the center. Once inside, they were met by Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemens-Abdullah, second from right.

Aldermen Bret Narayan of the 4th Ward, chair of the committee; Daniela Velazquez of the 6th, Alisha Sonnier of the 7th and Rasheen Aldridge of the 14th were able to spend about 90 minutes in the jail, although they could not speak directly to any inmates.

“For several reasons, the city counselor didn't want us to get involved in conversations with any of the inmates, but I think in part that's also to protect any of the committee members from potentially being called as a fact witness in any ongoing litigation,” Narayan said.

Inmates did yell at them about broken showers, but further investigation revealed that it was a specific shower that wasn’t functioning.

“We asked about it, and they were like, ‘Oh, we have to get that put into the system so that they can fix it,’” Aldridge said.

Jail problems continue

The detention board was born out of uprisings at thecity jail in 2020 and 2021.

Inmates the St. Louis City Justice Center smashed windows and lit furniture on fire during a protest Saturday, Feb. 7, 2021. It was the third protest in a little over a month over conditions inside the jail.
Bill Greenblatt
Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center start fires after breaking windows on the fourth floor, yelling to those watching from the street, in St. Louis in February 2021. It was the third protest in a little over a month over conditions inside the jail.

And less than a month after that tour, an inmate died of an unspecified medical emergency. Two days later, on Aug. 22, multiple detainees took a corrections officer hostage during breakfast.

Both of those cases are under investigation by the city. That, combined with the incomplete training, make it difficult for the jail oversight board and its staff to do their own inquiry. The legislation setting up the Civilian Oversight Division includes language that prohibits any interference with civil or criminal litigation; Bonner, the interim commissioner, is taking a strict reading of that language, frustrating board members like James Daum.

“So any involvement whatsoever is interference?” he asked during a special meeting of the board Monday. “That’s how I am construing it,” Bonner replied. “So we’re worthless,” Daum shot back.

The detention board did vote later in that meeting to conduct its own inquiry into the death of the detainee, identified in media reports as 32-year-old Carlton Bernard. He was arrested in June on third-degree assault charges.

Making the system work

City lawmakers who support civilian oversight generally agree that something needs to change in order to get the structure functioning as it should, but they differ on what approach to take.

Board President Megan Green and others, including Aldridge, are exploring changes to the current law, including making it easier for both the police and corrections oversight boards to get their own attorney, rather than having to rely on the city counselor’s office.

“We understand with what’s happening in the jail, unfortunately, all too often on a regular basis, that the city attorney has an obligation to protect its client, which is the City of St. Louis,” said Gray. “So we get that, we're not naive. We also believe that because you have that responsibility, there's no way that you can serve two masters."

10th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard, who shepherded the system to the mayor’s desk, says it’s more about getting the right people in the right positions.

“I don't know the specific position right now that it would change,” she said. “I know one thing that people that volunteered to sign up to do this work, and were vetted several times to do this work, I would never put it on them.”

Hubbard said she remains committed to finding a solution. Victims of misconduct and city residents alike, she said, are counting on her to do so.

Correction: A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misspelled Cameron McElhiney’s name.

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

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