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Bill Would Create Long-Awaited Civilian Oversight Board For St. Louis Police

State Sen. Joe Keaveny has filed legislation that would return the St. Louis Police Department back to local control for the first time since the 1850s.
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Joe Keaveny has filed legislation that would return the St. Louis Police Department back to local control for the first time since the 1850s.

This story will be updated. Updated at 1:45 p.m. with comments from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen will take the first step Friday toward the creation of a civilian oversight board for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. 

The bill to be introduced tomorrow creates a seven-member panel that would have the authority to oversee internal affairs investigations of civilian complaints. The board would also be able to do its own investigations if it believes the Internal Affairs Division falls short, and it can make recommend changes to the police department's policies.

"We're excited to have the bill introduced, " said John Chasnoff, a member of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, which has led the call for a civilian review board. "We had been building consensus for something along these lines since 2006, and the situation that St. Louis is now in from Ferguson has provided a tipping point so that almost everyone agrees that this is something that's really necessary for the city to move forward."

Mayor Francis Slay vetoed a 2006 version of the law over concerns about its legality and fairness. A spokeswoman said the mayor supported the concept of civilian review, as he does now, and even tried to implement it through the state appointed board in control of the police department at the time.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor called the new version a "compromise, but a workable one."

“I have full trust in our citizens to provide oversight of their own police department. Civilian oversight can assure the public that investigations into legitimate and unfounded complaints are both handled fairly, increasing confidence in the outcome.  All law-abiding citizens have a right to know that they will be treated with respect and dignity by their police department.  They are our customers.  Every good police officer has a right to know that they will be treated fairly while doing their job keeping us safe. "

Terry Kennedy, the 18th Ward alderman who sponsored both pieces of legislation, shied away from calling the bill a "compromise," saying instead that both sides have found "places of agreement."

But, he said, he was encouraged that the legislative process was underway.

"Putting [the COB] in place is going to help the citizenry feel as if they have another level of safeguard, an area where they can go to to make a complaint and feel that they can be adequately and fairly reviewed," Kennedy said.

The districts

The board would create seven districts, each made up of four of the city's 28 wards. The map below shows the districts, each colored differently.

The Board In A Nutshell

The measure as written creates a seven-member board, with an executive director and other staff as needed.  Members would have to be city residents, at least 18 years old, with no felony convictions. They cannot be an employee of the city, hold a public office in Missouri or have an immediate family member who is employed by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. In addition, only one of the seven members can be a former law enforcement officer.

The board would work in the following way:

  • A member of the community could submit a complaint to either the police Internal Affairs Division, or to the Civilian Oversight Board itself. IAD and the COB must make each other aware of complaints they have received. IAD must investigate all complaints.

Both Chasnoff and Kennedy said that giving citizens the right to make complaints directly to the board would make people feel more comfortable about coming forward.

  • COB members would have the authority to monitor most parts of the IAD investigation, except for interviews with police department employees.
  • The IAD must forward its completed investigation and any disciplinary recommendations to the COB, which has 30 days to review the file.
  • The COB can vote to agree or disagree with the IAD report. They can also ask the department to do additional investigation and suggest questions for witnesses.
  • Under certain circumstances, the COB can vote to conduct an independent investigation. 

The Board of Aldermen does not have the legal ability to give the COB subpoena power, so the COB cannot compel witnesses to cooperate. But Kennedy said the chief of police and director of public safety can. Companion legislation that would change the city charter and allow boards and commissions to be given subpoena power is expected at a later date.
The board is subject to sunshine and open meetings laws, though rules governing personnel records and discussions limit what it can make public. John Chasnoff said its members are authorized to put together a report compiling data on the type of complaints and how they are resolved.

"There should be a great deal of information made public which hasn't really been very accessible in the past," he said. 

Kennedy said the legislation probably won't be approved until after the holidays, and the board likely won't be operational until July, when the next budget year begins.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department referred reporters to Mayor Slay's statement on the matter. Sgt. Colby Dolly, with the St. Louis County police, said his department's Board of Police Commissioners already serves many of the functions of a civilian review board proposed in the city's legislation. Members of that commission, he said, are appointed by the County Executive but approved by the County Council.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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